An anxiety or panic attack often comes on suddenly, with symptoms peaking within 10 minutes. For doctors to diagnose a panic attack, they look for at least four of the following signs: sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, a choking sensation, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, fear of losing your mind, fear of dying, feeling hot or cold, numbness or tingling, a racing heart (heart palpitations), and feeling unusually detached from yourself.
While conducting research for this article, we encountered more than a dozen mental health professionals who mistakenly believed the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” were synonymous. They were licensed professionals, but none of them had a specialty in anxiety. Because “anxiety attack” is not a clinical term, they assumed it was a synonym for “panic attack.” This caused them to use the terms interchangeably.
About 12% of people are affected by an anxiety disorder in a given year and between 5-30% are affected at some point in their life. They occur about twice as often in women than they do in men, and generally begin before the age of 25. The most common are specific phobia which affects nearly 12% and social anxiety disorder which affects 10% at some point in their life. They affect those between the ages of 15 and 35 the most and become less common after the age of 55. Rates appear to be higher in the United States and Europe.
Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These sensations often mimic symptoms of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. As a result, the diagnosis of panic disorder is frequently not made until extensive and costly medical procedures fail to provide a correct diagnosis or relief.
It is important to note that genetic factors can also bestow resilience to anxiety disorders, and the field continues to pursue large-scale genomics studies to identify novel genetic factors that are associated with anxiety disorders in hopes of better understanding biological pathways that: 1) contribute to the development and maintenance of anxiety; and 2) may lead to better treatment for these disorders. Most people are not aware of what specific genetic markers they may have that confer risk for anxiety disorders, so a straightforward way to approximate genetic risk is if an individual has a history of anxiety disorders in their family. While both nature and nurture can be at play with family history, if several people have anxiety disorders it is likely that a genetic vulnerability to anxiety exists in that family.
Anxiety can be caused by numerous factors, ranging from external stimuli, emotional abandonment, shame, to experiencing an extreme reaction when first exposed to something potentially anxiety-provoking. Research has not yet explained why some people will experience a panic attack or develop a phobia, while others growing up in the same family and shared experiences do not. It is likely that anxiety disorders, like all mental illness, is caused by a complex combination of factors not yet fully understood. These factors likely include childhood development, genetics, neurobiology, psychological factors, personality development, and social and environmental cues.
Cognitive therapy and exposure therapy are two CBT methods that are often used, together or by themselves, to treat social anxiety disorder. Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, challenging, and then neutralizing unhelpful or distorted thoughts underlying anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used along with relaxation exercises and/or imagery.