In people with anxiety disorders, the brain circuitry that controls the threat response goes awry. At the heart of the circuit is the amygdala, a structure that flags incoming signals as worrisome and communicates with other parts of the brain to put the body on alert for danger. Early life events, especially traumatic ones, can program the circuitry so that it is oversensitive and sends out alarms too frequently and with only minor provocations. Survival mandates a system for perceiving threats and taking quick, automatic action, but those with anxiety see threats where there are none, perhaps because emotional memories color their perceptions.
Panic attacks may also occur due to short-term stressors. Significant personal loss, including an emotional attachment to a romantic partner, life transitions, and significant life changes may all trigger a panic attack to occur. A person with an anxious temperament, excessive need for reassurance, hypochondriacal fears, overcautious view of the world, and cumulative stress have been correlated with panic attacks. In adolescents, social transitions may also be a cause.
The cause of anxiety disorders is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Anxiety can stem itself from certain factors: genetics, medicinal side-effects, shortness of oxygen. Risk factors include a history of child abuse, family history of mental disorders, and poverty. Anxiety disorders often occur with other mental disorders, particularly major depressive disorder, personality disorder, and substance use disorder. To be diagnosed symptoms typically need to be present at least six months, be more than would be expected for the situation, and decrease functioning. Other problems that may result in similar symptoms including hyperthyroidism, heart disease, caffeine, alcohol, or cannabis use, and withdrawal from certain drugs, among others.
Heredity, other biological factors, stressful life events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily reactions are all believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. Some research suggests panic attacks occur when a “suffocation alarm mechanism” in the brain is activated, falsely reporting that death is imminent. The exact cause or causes of panic disorder are unknown and are the subject of intense scientific investigation.
The cause of panic attacks is unknown but there are several theories, including a chemical imbalance in the brain or a genetic predisposition. They can be triggered by a variety of conditions and situations, including the presence of a mood disorder, such as anxiety or depression; extreme stress over a long period of time; a physical health problem such as a heart, respiratory, or thyroid condition; overuse of alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine; and the side effects of some medical and recreational drugs. Frequent panic attacks generally indicate a panic disorder. Panic attacks can also occur while an individual is sleeping, causing them to wake up suddenly with feelings of fear and dread. Adolescents and young adults who have panic attacks often have other mental health issues or are at significant risk of developing other issues, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, or other mood disorders, eating disorders, and problems with substance abuse.
Behavioral choices can also significantly impact risk, as excessive tobacco or caffeine use can increase anxiety, whereas regular exercise can decrease anxiety. Specific temperament and personality traits also may confer risk of having an anxiety disorder. With regards to temperament, shyness and behavioral inhibition in childhood can increase risk of developing an anxiety disorder later in life. With regard to personality traits, the Five Factor Model of Personality consists of five broad trait domains including Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. An individual higher on trait Neuroticism or low on Conscientiousness is at a higher risk for all anxiety disorders, and an individual low on trait Extraversion is at a higher risk of developing social phobia and agoraphobia. Some more narrow personality traits have also been found to relate to risk for anxiety, including anxiety sensitivity, a negative or hostile attributional style, and self-criticism. Personality disorders have also been shown to relate to increased risk for anxiety disorders.
People who have repeated, persistent attacks or feel severe anxiety about having another attack are said to have panic disorder. Panic disorder is strikingly different from other types of anxiety disorders in that panic attacks are often sudden and unprovoked. However, panic attacks experienced by those with panic disorder may also be linked to or heightened by certain places or situations, making daily life difficult.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies can be used in conjunction with conventional therapies to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. There is a growing interest in these types of alternative therapies, since they are non-invasive and can be useful to patients. They are typically not intended to replace conventional therapies but rather can be an adjunct therapy that can improve the overall quality of life of patients.
Once the diagnosis of panic attack is made, however, the person may be surprised that no medicines are prescribed. Before medications are started, the person requires further evaluation by a mental-health professional to check for the presence of other mental-health disorders. These may include anxiety disorders, depression, or panic disorder (a different diagnosis than panic attack).
A panic attack may be a one-time occurrence, although many people experience repeat episodes. Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as crossing a bridge or speaking in public—especially if that situation has caused a panic attack before. Usually, the panic-inducing situation is one in which you feel endangered and unable to escape, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response.
Buspirone is a drug indicated for the treatment of anxiety. This drug has high efficacy for Generalized Anxiety Disorder and is particularly effective at reducing the cognitive and interpersonal problems associated with anxiety. Unlike benzodiazepines, buspirone does not have a sedative effect or interact with alcohol. Most importantly there is a very low risk of developing a dependence on buspirone. Its side effects are minimal but can include dizziness, nervousness, and headaches. BuSpar and Vanspar are brand names associated with buspirone.
Genetics and family history (e.g., parental anxiety) may predispose an individual for an increased risk of an anxiety disorder, but generally external stimuli will trigger its onset or exacerbation. Genetic differences account for about 43% of variance in panic disorder and 28% in generalized anxiety disorder. Although single genes are neither necessary nor sufficient for anxiety by themselves, several gene polymorphisms have been found to correlate with anxiety: PLXNA2, SERT, CRH, COMT and BDNF. Several of these genes influence neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and norepinephrine) and hormones (such as cortisol) which are implicated in anxiety. The epigenetic signature of at least one of these genes BDNF has also been associated with anxiety and specific patterns of neural activity.
A first panic attack is usually unexpected, and comes "out of the blue." It may scare you so much that you start taking steps to protect yourself from future attacks. Maybe you start avoiding places that remind you of your first attack. Maybe you only go out after making sure you have your cell phone, a bottle of water, and other objects you hope will keep you safe. Maybe you try hard to "stop thinking about it." You work hard to keep the panic at bay.
Although how long a panic attack lasts can vary greatly, its duration is typically more than 10 minutes. A panic is one of the most distressing conditions that a person can endure, and its symptoms can closely mimic those of a heart attack. Typically, most people who have one panic attack will have others, and when someone has repeated attacks with no other apparent physical or emotional cause and it negatively changes their behavior due to the attacks or feels severe anxiety about having another attack, he or she is said to have panic disorder. A number of other emotional problems can have panic attacks as a symptom. Some of these illnesses include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and intoxication or withdrawal from alcohol and certain other drugs of abuse.
From a cardiac standpoint, unless coincident heart disease is also present, the prognosis after having chest pain due to an anxiety attack is very good. However, all too often—especially in an emergency room setting where people who have chest pain due to anxiety attacks often wind up—doctors who rule out a cardiac emergency are likely to brush the patient off as having a minor problem of no significance; but panic attacks should not be brushed off.
You can learn more about this in the Recovery Support area of our website. Our support area contains a wealth of self-help information on how to treat anxiety disorder, including anxiety attacks. Many find it to be their “one stop” destination for anxiety disorder help. You can click here for more information about our Recovery Support area membership options.
In the central nervous system (CNS), the major mediators of the symptoms of anxiety disorders appear to be norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Other neurotransmitters and peptides, such as corticotropin-releasing factor, may be involved. Peripherally, the autonomic nervous system, especially the sympathetic nervous system, mediates many of the symptoms. Increased flow in the right parahippocampal region and reduced serotonin type 1A receptor binding in the anterior and posterior cingulate and raphe of patients are the diagnostic factors for prevalence of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is typified by exaggerated worries and expectations of negative outcomes in unknown situations, and such concerns are often accompanied by physical symptoms. These include muscle tension, headaches, stomach cramps, and frequent urination. Behavioral therapies, with or without medication to control symptoms, have proved highly effective against anxiety, especially in children.