The symptoms of a panic attack may cause the person to feel that their body is failing. The symptoms can be understood as follows. First, there is frequently the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the fight-or-flight response when the body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating. Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), causing compensatory metabolic acidosis activating chemosensing mechanisms which translate this pH shift into autonomic and respiratory responses. The person him/herself may overlook the hyperventilation, having become preoccupied with the associated somatic symptoms.
There are several different anxiety-related disorders. Some symptoms overlap across many of these disorders, and others are more specific to a single disorder. In general, however, all anxiety-related disorders feature worry, nervousness, or fear that is ongoing, excessive, and has negative effects on a person's ability to function. It can be tricky to decide when anxiety is typical or linked to a disorder, which is why diagnoses should be made by licensed professionals, such as psychologists or psychiatrists.
Over time, many who suffer panic attacks develop an on-going fear of having another attack. This fear can severely hamper daily activities and overall quality of life. Some people refuse to leave their houses or to put themselves in situations that remind them of their previous attacks. Agoraphobia (a fear of being outside of known and safe surroundings) or other mental problems may follow.
Additionally, there is some evidence that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction treatment (MBSR), as well as online and computerized treatments are effective in treating panic disorder (Arch et al., 2017). However, the overwhelming majority of research supports the long-term success of CBT for treating panic disorder. More research is needed to explore the extent to which MBSR and ACT work when compared to CBT and other treatments, but preliminary results are positive. In general, empirically-supported treatments that are founded on the basis of research within the psychological and medical fields are recommended for treating panic disorder.
Other research suggests that social structures that contribute to inequality, such as lower wages, may play a part. In a study published in January 2016 in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Columbia epidemiologists reviewed data on wages and mood disorders, and noted that, at least in their data set, when a woman's pay rose higher than a man's, the odds of her having both generalized anxiety disorder and major depression decreased. (10)
Anxiety disorders increase one's chances for suffering from other medical illness, such as cardiovascular disorders, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. More specifically, increased body weight and abdominal fat, high blood pressure, and greater levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose have all been linked to anxiety. While it is still unclear what causes the high co-morbidity between anxiety and bad physical health outcomes, research suggests that changes in underlying biology that is characteristic of anxiety may also facilitate the emergence for these other physical health outcomes over time. For example, changes in stress hormones, autonomic responses, as well as heightened systemic inflammation are all associated with anxiety disorders and negative health outcomes. These shared physiological states suggest a shared underlying biology and that anxiety maybe a whole-body condition.
There has been recent interest in using psychoactive substances in conjunction with psychotherapy; the two that have received increased attention have been cannabis (marijuana) and methylenedioxymethamfetamine (MDMA, known as ecstasy or molly). These drugs are somewhat controversial, given that they also have psychoactive, i.e. "feeling high" effects. However, with increasing legalization of marijuana it is important to address whether these substances could be used to alleviate clinical symptoms of anxiety. While there have been only a few randomized clinical trials for these drugs, certain forms of cannabis have demonstrated positive effects on anxiety. Specifically, cannabidiol, a component of cannabis has been effective for Social Anxiety Disoder, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has helped PTSD patients. However, the plant form of cannabis has not shown great efficacy and has potential to worsen symptoms, so should be used with caution and only under supervision of a provider. MDMA has shown some positive effects for PTSD, but should only be used as an adjunct to psychotherapy, again under clinical care.
Panic disorder is a separate but related diagnosis to panic attacks. People experiencing repeated panic attacks and who meet other diagnostic criteria may be diagnosed with this illness. Panic disorder is thought to have more of an inherited component than panic attacks that are not a part of panic disorder. Certain medical conditions, like asthma and heart disease, as well as certain medications, like steroids and some asthma medications, can cause anxiety attacks as a symptom or side effect. As individuals with panic disorder are at higher risk of having a heart-valve abnormality called mitral valve prolapse (MVP), that should be evaluated by a doctor since MVP may indicate that specific precautions be taken when the person is treated for a dental problem.
Demographic factors also impact risk for anxiety disorders. While there is not a strong consensus, research suggests that risk for anxiety disorders decreases over the lifespan with lower risk being demonstrated later in life. Women are significantly more likely to experience anxiety disorders. Another robust biological and sociodemographic risk factor for anxiety disorders is gender, as women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety. Overall symptom severity has also been shown to be more severe in women compared to men, and women with anxiety disorders typically report a lower quality of life than men. This sex difference in the prevalence and severity of anxiety disorders that puts women at a disadvantage over men is not specific to anxiety disorders, but is also found in depression and other stress-related adverse health outcomes (i.e. obesity and cardiometabolic disease). Basic science and clinical studies suggest that ovarian hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, and their fluctuations may play an important role in this sex difference in anxiety disorder prevalence and severity. While changes in estrogen and progesterone, over the month as well as over the lifetime, are linked to change in anxiety symptom severity and have been shown to impact systems implicated in the etiology of anxiety disorders (i.e. the stress axis), it still remains unclear how these hormones and their fluctuations increase women's vulnerability to anxiety.
There is a long list of signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack. But because each body is somewhat chemically unique, anxiety attacks can affect each person differently. Consequently, anxiety attack symptoms can vary from person to person in type or kind, number, intensity, duration, and frequency. If your symptoms don’t exactly match this list, that doesn’t mean you don’t have anxiety attacks. It simply means that your body is responding to them slightly differently.
Anxiety attacks that occur while sleeping, also called nocturnal panic attacks, occur less often than panic attacks during the daytime but affect about 40%-70% of those who suffer from daytime panic attacks. This symptom is also important because people who suffer from panic symptoms during sleep tend to have more respiratory distress associated with their panic. They also tend to experience more symptoms of depression and other psychiatric disorders compared to people who do not have panic attacks at night. Nocturnal panic attacks tend to cause sufferers to wake suddenly from sleep in a state of sudden fear or dread for no apparent reason. In contrast to people with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, sufferers of nocturnal panic can have all the other symptoms of a panic attack. The duration of nocturnal panic attacks tends to be less than 10 minutes, but it can take much longer to fully calm down for those who experience them.
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.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects people after terrifying events such as physical or sexual abuse, car accidents, war or natural disasters. Individuals with PTSD may experience depression, flashbacks, nightmares, sleep difficulties, irritability, aggression, violence, and a feeling of detachment or numbness. Symptoms can be triggered by anything that reminds the individual of their trauma.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is form of Cognitive therapy that emphasizes individual psychotherapy as well as group skills training to help people learns new skills and strategies—including mindfulness and distress tolerance– to manage their anxiety and panic. According to the American Psychological Association therapists who practicing DBT aim to strike a balance between validation and change by clearly communicating acceptance of who the client is and the challenges the client faces, while at the same time helping the client to learn new skills to improve emotion regulation, interpersonal communication skills and how to participate in life and cope with problems without defaulting to impulsive behavior.
Neural circuitry involving the amygdala (which regulates emotions like anxiety and fear, stimulating the HPA Axis and sympathetic nervous system) and hippocampus (which is implicated in emotional memory along with the amygdala) is thought to underlie anxiety. People who have anxiety tend to show high activity in response to emotional stimuli in the amygdala. Some writers believe that excessive anxiety can lead to an overpotentiation of the limbic system (which includes the amygdala and nucleus accumbens), giving increased future anxiety, but this does not appear to have been proven.
Since anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, they can look very different from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. Someone else may struggle with a disabling fear of driving, or uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts. Yet another may live in a constant state of tension, worrying about anything and everything. But despite their different forms, all anxiety disorders illicit an intense fear or anxiety out of proportion to the situation at hand.
Persistent and excessive fear of a specific object or situation, such as flying, heights, animals, toilets, or seeing blood. Fear is cued by the presence or anticipation of the object/situation and exposure to the phobic stimulus results in an immediate fear response or panic attack. The fear is disproportionate to the actual danger posed by the object or situation. Commonly, adults with specific phobias will recognize that their fear is excessive or unreasonable.
Although your gut response might be to leave the stressful situation immediately, don’t. “Let your anxiety level come down,” advises Carmin. Then you can decide if you want to leave or if there's a way to get back to whatever you were doing when the anxiety attack started. Staying in the moment will help you overcome anxiety, but it’s hard to do this at first.
Panic disorder is characterized by repeated, unexpected panic attacks, as well as fear of experiencing another episode. A panic disorder may also be accompanied by agoraphobia, which is the fear of being in places where escape or help would be difficult in the event of a panic attack. If you have agoraphobia, you are likely to avoid public places such as shopping malls, or confined spaces such as an airplane.
Shortness of breath and chest pain are the predominant symptoms. People experiencing a panic attack may incorrectly attribute them to a heart attack and thus seek treatment in an emergency room. Because chest pain and shortness of breath are hallmark symptoms of cardiovascular illnesses, including unstable angina and myocardial infarction (heart attack), a diagnosis of exclusion (ruling out other conditions) must be performed before diagnosing a panic attack. It is especially important to do this for people whose mental health and heart health statuses are unknown. This can be done using an electrocardiogram and mental health assessments.
Some benefits of benzodiazepines are that they are effective in relieving anxiety and take effect more quickly than antidepressant medications often prescribed for anxiety. Some drawbacks of benzodiazepines are that people can build up a tolerance to them if they are taken over a long period of time and they may need higher and higher doses to get the same effect. Some people may even become dependent on them.