Anyone who’s ever had a panic attack can tell you what a rollercoaster-of-a-ride it can be. It comes on suddenly, gripping its victims in extreme fear and heart-thumping, breathtaking physical distress. Minutes later, it’s over. When panic attacks occur repeatedly and people’s lives are gripped by fear of having the next panic episode, they may be diagnosed with panic disorder.

Some research suggests that your body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up as your body prepared for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. But it's unknown why a panic attack occurs when there's no obvious danger present.
Behaving in an apprehensive manner produces the physiological, psychological, and emotional state of anxiety. When we behave apprehensively (worried, fretful, concerned, afraid), the body activates the stress response, which secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body to bring about specific changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with danger. The stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response because of how it equips the body to either fight with or flee from danger.
Panic disorder can be effectively treated with a variety of interventions, including psychological therapies and medication[9] with the strongest and most consistent evidence indicating that cognitive behavioral therapy has the most complete and longest duration of effect, followed by specific selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.[37] Subsequent research by Barbara Milrod and her colleagues[38] suggests that psychoanalytic psychotherapy might be effective in relieving panic attacks, however, those results alone should be addressed with care. While the results obtained in joint treatments that include cognitive behavioral therapy and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are corroborated by many studies and meta-analysis, those obtained by Barbara Milrod are not. Scientific reliability of psychoanalytic psychotherapy for treating panic disorder has not yet been addressed. Specifically, the mechanisms by which psychoanalysis reduces panic are not understood; whereas cognitive-behavioral therapy has a clear conceptual basis that can be applied to panic. The term anxiolytic has become nearly synonymous with the benzodiazepines because these compounds have been, for almost 40 years, the drugs of choice for stress-related anxiety.
Panic attacks and panic disorder are not the same thing. Panic disorder involves recurrent panic attacks along with constant fears about having future attacks and, often, avoiding situations that may trigger or remind someone of previous attacks. Not all panic attacks are caused by panic disorder; other conditions may trigger a panic attack. They might include:

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.[49][50] They occur about twice as often in women than they do in men, and generally begin before the age of 25.[10][49] 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.[49]

Moreover, this hypocapnia and release of adrenaline during a panic attack cause vasoconstriction resulting in slightly less blood flow to the head which causes dizziness and lightheadedness.[28][29] A panic attack can cause blood sugar to be drawn away from the brain and toward the major muscles. Neuroimaging suggests heightened activity in the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, and brainstem regions including the periaqueductal gray, parabrachial nucleus, and Locus coeruleus.[30] In particular, the amygdala has been suggested to have a critical role.[31] The combination of high arousal in the amygdala and brainstem along with decreased blood flow and blood sugar in the brain can lead to dramatically decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain.[32] There is evidence that having an anxiety disorder increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).[33] Those affected also have a reduction in heart rate variability.[33]
A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, and during which time a variety of psychological and physical symptoms occur. These symptoms include rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, hot flashes, and lightheadedness—as well as a sense of impending doom, chills, nausea, abdominal pain, chest pain, headache, and numbness or tingling.
Be smart about caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. If you struggle with anxiety, you may want to consider reducing your caffeine intake, or cutting it out completely. Similarly alcohol can also make anxiety worse. And while it may seem like cigarettes are calming, nicotine is actually a powerful stimulant that leads to higher, not lower, levels of anxiety. For help kicking the habit, see How to Quit Smoking.
"This tends to make the individual vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder, rather than cause them to directly inherit one," she says. Environmental factors, she adds, interact with genetic predispositions to trigger the onset of anxiety disorders. A study published in August 2017 in the journal Emotion may offer clues as to how both genes and environment combine to make anxiety take root. (4)
There are also things that people with panic disorder can do to learn how to handle it and to make treatment more effective. Since substances like drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages, or using illicit drugs can worsen panic attacks, those things should be avoided. Other tips to prevent or manage panic attacks include engaging in aerobic exercise and stress-management techniques like deep breathing, massage therapy, and yoga, since these self-help activities have also been found to help decrease the frequency and severity of panic attacks. Although many people use home remedies like breathing into a paper bag when afflicted by the hyperventilation that can be associated with panic, the benefit received may be the result of the individual believing it will remedy the symptoms (placebo effect). Also, breathing into a paper bag when one is already having trouble breathing can make matters worse when the hyperventilation is the result of conditions of oxygen deprivation, like an asthma attack or a heart attack.
Anxiety disorders respond very well to therapy—and often in a relatively short amount of time. The specific treatment approach depends on the type of anxiety disorder and its severity. But in general, most anxiety disorders are treated with therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are types of behavioral therapy, meaning they focus on behavior rather than on underlying psychological conflicts or issues from the past. They can help with issues such as panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and phobias.

Anxiety disorders respond very well to therapy—and often in a relatively short amount of time. The specific treatment approach depends on the type of anxiety disorder and its severity. But in general, most anxiety disorders are treated with therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are types of behavioral therapy, meaning they focus on behavior rather than on underlying psychological conflicts or issues from the past. They can help with issues such as panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and phobias.
2.This exposure happened either by directly experiencing the event(s), witnessing the event(s) in person, learning that the event(s) happened to a close friend or loved one (note: for cases of death or near death, it must have been violent or accidental), or being repeatedly exposed to the aversive details from traumatic events (e.g., as an emergency room doctor or nurse who frequently sees dead and mutilated bodies).

Generally, panic attacks are treated with reassurance and relaxation techniques. By definition, panic attacks last less than an hour, so many times a person already feels much better by the time he or she makes it to the doctor's office. Nevertheless, because the diagnosis is made by excluding more dangerous causes, people may be given medications during their attack.
Anxiety can be either a short-term 'state' or a long-term personality "trait". Trait anxiety reflects a stable tendency across the lifespan of responding with acute, state anxiety in the anticipation of threatening situations (whether they are actually deemed threatening or not).[40] A meta-analysis showed that a high level of neuroticism is a risk factor for development of anxiety symptoms and disorders.[41] Such anxiety may be conscious or unconscious.[42]
Generalized anxiety disorder is a condition in which your worries overwhelm you to the point where your daily routine seems difficult to carry out, and you have been worrying this way for at least six months. You may feel on edge and have difficulty focusing on tasks. There may be a tendency to fear and expect the worst; some call this catastrophic thinking. You even may know that your worries are perhaps irrational, but you still go on feeling them. 

Exposure therapy has been around for a long time. It involves exposing the patient in a safe and controlled environment to physical sensations they experience during a panic attack much the same way you‘d expose in small increments a person with a fear of trains or puppies or snakes to the things that scares them. With panic disorder, there’s often a heightened sensitivity to ordinary physical sensations such as racing heart, stomach ache or feeling faint. In exposure therapy, the therapist will ask you to mimic activities—like running around or doing jumping jacks or holding your breath—to cause panic symptoms. The idea is that by repeating the things that may trigger a panic attack those triggers will eventually lose their power.


In particular, the doctor will be concerned with the person's past medical history, past history of any mental illness, and any surgery the person may have had. In addition to exploring whether the person suffers from any other mental illness, the practitioner often explores whether the panic attack sufferer has a specific anxiety disorder in addition to or instead of panic disorder, like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder.
If you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you just can’t shake your concerns about anything and everything. And the severity of the condition may come and go. During mild episodes of your condition, you are more likely to be able to hold down a job and not have the disorder interfere too much with your social life. When your anxiety flares up, you might experience difficulty with everyday life situations and find the simplest tasks unbearable.
Test anxiety is the uneasiness, apprehension, or nervousness felt by students who have a fear of failing an exam. Students who have test anxiety may experience any of the following: the association of grades with personal worth; fear of embarrassment by a teacher; fear of alienation from parents or friends; time pressures; or feeling a loss of control. Sweating, dizziness, headaches, racing heartbeats, nausea, fidgeting, uncontrollable crying or laughing and drumming on a desk are all common. Because test anxiety hinges on fear of negative evaluation,[26] debate exists as to whether test anxiety is itself a unique anxiety disorder or whether it is a specific type of social phobia.[27] The DSM-IV classifies test anxiety as a type of social phobia.[28]
Anxiety cannot increase forever and you cannot experience peak levels of anxiety forever. Physiologically there is a point at which our anxiety cannot become any higher and our bodies will not maintain that peak level of anxiety indefinitely. At that point, there is nowhere for anxiety to go but down. It is uncomfortable to reach that peak but it is important to remember this anxiety will even out and then go down with time.

Yes, anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms can feel awful, intense, and threatening. But they aren’t harmful. They pass when the anxiety attack subsides. Getting the right information, help, and support is the best way to treat anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms. We provide more detailed information in the Recovery Support area of our website.


Learn how to control your breathing. Hyperventilation brings on many sensations (such as lightheadedness and tightness of the chest) that occur during a panic attack. Deep breathing, on the other hand, can relieve the symptoms of panic. By learning to control your breathing, you can calm yourself down when you begin to feel anxious. And if you know how to control your breathing, you’re also less likely to create the very sensations that you’re afraid of.
For more information about our Anxiety Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Anxiety Signs and Symptoms; common Anxiety Attack Symptoms; the symptoms of panic attack disorder; anxiety Recovery Support area; information about Anxiety; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate link or graphic below:
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Anxiety is becoming increasingly prolific in today’s society, particularly among young people. While everybody feels anxious at some point in their lives, anxiety disorders can be all-encompassing unless you seek help. But what exactly is anxiety, and how do you treat it? The main type of anxiety is referred to by health specialists as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), which is characterised by continued feelings of worry, fear and unease that are present for much of the time and not restricted to specific situations.
Psychodynamic theory posits that anxiety is often the result of opposing unconscious wishes or fears that manifest via maladaptive defense mechanisms (such as suppression, repression, anticipation, regression, somatization, passive aggression, dissociation) that develop to adapt to problems with early objects (e.g., caregivers) and empathic failures in childhood. For example, persistent parental discouragement of anger may result in repression/suppression of angry feelings which manifests as gastrointestinal distress (somatization) when provoked by another while the anger remains unconscious and outside the individual's awareness. Such conflicts can be targets for successful treatment with psychodynamic therapy. While psychodynamic therapy tends to explore the underlying roots of anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy has also been shown to be a successful treatment for anxiety by altering irrational thoughts and unwanted behaviors.

In order to manage threatening situations, humans have evolved to experience a "fight or flight" response. As part of this response, when humans are confronted with a dangerous situation, their body mobilizes by sending blood away from their extremities (e.g. hands and feet) and into the major muscles, producing adrenaline, and increasing heart rate so that we are better equipped to fight off danger.
In Europe about 3% of the population has a panic attack in a given year while in the United States they affect about 11%.[2] They are more common in females than males.[2] They often begin during puberty or early adulthood.[2] Children and older people are less commonly affected.[2] A meta-analysis was conducted on data collected about twin studies and family studies on the link between genes and panic disorder. The researchers also examined the possibility of a link to phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder. The researchers used a database called MEDLINE to accumulate their data.[61] The results concluded that the aforementioned disorders have a genetic component and are inherited or passed down through genes. For the non-phobias, the likelihood of inheriting is 30%-40% and for the phobias, it was 50%-60%.[61]
A healthy diet is also important to reduce and prevent anxiety. It seems counterintuitive that you can "eat your way to calm" but sustaining a healthy diet can really help you to feel more at ease on a regular basis, despite stressors. Some foods that are particularly helpful for reducing anxiety include foods with omega 3 fatty acids (i.e., salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed) and probiotics. Avoid greasy, sugary, high-fat, and processed foods. Additionally, avoiding caffeine when feeling anxious as well as unhealthy substances (i.e., alcohol) could be beneficial. Drinking alcohol might seem like a good way to calm down, but it can lead to sustained anxious symptoms. Incorporating a healthy diet into your lifestyle is fundamental to preventing and reducing anxiety.
The cause of anxiety disorders is a combination of genetic and environmental factors.[47] Anxiety can stem itself from certain factors: genetics, medicinal side-effects, shortness of oxygen.[48] 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.[49] 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.[10][49] Other problems that may result in similar symptoms including hyperthyroidism, heart disease, caffeine, alcohol, or cannabis use, and withdrawal from certain drugs, among others.[49][7]
Panic disorder involves repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). You may have feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid, fluttering or pounding heart (heart palpitations). These panic attacks may lead to worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they've occurred.
×