The causes of anxiety attacks are not well understood. Some traumatic life events can set off anxiety attacks if the person is prone to depression or anxiety disorders. Also, medical conditions and some medications may trigger anxiety attacks. Many believe anxiety attacks run in families with a genetic predisposition. In other words, if your mom and her sister had anxiety attacks, it’s likely you will, too.
It is not unusual to experience only one or two symptoms at a time, such as vibrations in their legs, shortness of breath, or an intense wave of heat traveling up their bodies, which is not similar to hot flashes due to estrogen shortage. Some symptoms, such as vibrations in the legs, are sufficiently different from any normal sensation that they clearly indicate panic disorder. Other symptoms on the list can occur in people who may or may not have panic disorder. Panic disorder does not require four or more symptoms to all be present at the same time. Causeless panic and racing heartbeat are sufficient to indicate a panic attack.
A panic attack is a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The most common symptoms include trembling, dyspnea (shortness of breath), heart palpitations, chest pain (or chest tightness), hot flashes, cold flashes, burning sensations (particularly in the facial or neck area), sweating, nausea, dizziness (or slight vertigo), light-headedness, hyperventilation, paresthesias (tingling sensations), sensations of choking or smothering, difficulty moving, and derealization. These physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm in people prone to panic attacks. This results in increased anxiety and forms a positive feedback loop.
There are a number of things people do to help cope with symptoms of anxiety disorders and make treatment more effective. Stress management techniques and meditation can be helpful. Support groups (in-person or online) can provide an opportunity to share experiences and coping strategies. Learning more about the specifics of a disorder and helping family and friends to understand better can also be helpful. Avoid caffeine, which can worsen symptoms, and check with your doctor about any medications.
Please note that it is not a good idea to attempt to diagnose or label a friend or family member. Only a mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety disorder, as many disorders have overlapping features, and can go together with other types of mental health difficulties. However, if you notice signs of anxiety, or just feel that something is not quite right with someone that you care about, it's a good idea to reach out to ask the person how they are feeling. You could start with something neutral and supportive like, "It seems like you haven't been quite yourself lately. Is there something going on that you want to talk about?"
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in the United States. The most common type of anxiety disorder are called “simple phobias,” which includes phobias of things like snakes or being in a high place. Up to 9 percent of the population could be diagnosed with this disorder in any given year. Also common are social anxiety disorder (social phobia, about 7 percent) — being fearful and avoiding social situations — and generalized anxiety disorder (about 3 percent).
If you're having lots of panic attacks at unpredictable times and there doesn't seem to be a particular trigger or cause, you might be given a diagnosis of panic disorder. It's common to experience panic disorder and agoraphobia (a type of phobia) together. People who experience panic disorder may have some periods with few or no panic attacks, but have lots at other times.
Although individual participants may benefit from being part of a clinical trial, participants should be aware that the primary purpose of a clinical trial is to gain new scientific knowledge so that others may be better helped in the future. Decisions about whether to apply for a clinical trial and which ones are best suited for a given individual are best made in collaboration with a licensed health professional.
The typical course of panic disorder begins in adolescence and peaks in early to mid-twenties, with symptoms rarely present in children under the age of 14 or in older adults over the age of 64 (Kessler et al., 2012). Caregivers can look for symptoms of panic attacks in adolescents, followed by notable changes in their behavior (e.g., avoiding experiencing strong physical sensations), to help potentially identify the onset of panic disorder. Panic disorder is most likely to develop between the ages of 20-24 years and although females are more likely to have panic disorder, there are no significant sex differences in how the disorder presents (McLean et al., 2011).
People who have had a panic attack in certain situations may develop irrational fears, called phobias, of these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the pattern of avoidance and level of anxiety about another attack may reach the point where individuals with panic disorder are unable to drive or even step out of the house. At this stage, the person is said to have panic disorder with agoraphobia.
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So, if anxiety has so many negative effects, why is it relatively common? Many scientists who study anxiety disorders believe that many of the symptoms of anxiety (e.g., being easily startled, worrying about having enough resources) helped humans survive under harsh and dangerous conditions. For instance, being afraid of a snake and having a "fight or flight" response is most likely a good idea! It can keep you from being injured or even killed. When humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies and couldn't pick up their next meal at a grocery store or drive-through, it was useful to worry about where the next meal, or food for the winter, would come from. Similarly avoiding an area because you know there might be a bear would keep you alive —worry can serve to motivate behaviors that help you survive. But in modern society, these anxiety-related responses often occur in response to events or concerns that are not linked to survival. For example, seeing a bear in the zoo does not put you at any physical risk, and how well-liked you are at work does not impact your health or safety. In short, most experts believe that anxiety works by taking responses that are appropriate when there are real risks to your physical wellbeing (e.g., a predator or a gun), and then activating those responses when there is no imminent physical risk (e.g., when you are safe at home or work).
One of the most important things you can do is to listen to your family member or friend talk about the things in his/her life that are sources of stress. A first instinct might be to offer advice or ideas for a "quick fix". However, simply accepting your friend's stress levels can help them deal with their anxiety, knowing that they can rely on you as a source of support even when their symptoms might be tough to watch. Studies show that social support from family and friends can be one of the strongest protective factors against debilitating levels of anxiety.
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.
After a number of panic episodes, the individual can become afraid of being a helpless victim of panic. He or she may hesitate to be alone, to venture far from home, or to be in public places. Even when not experiencing an anxiety attack, the person with panic attacks often becomes increasingly nervous and apprehensive. He or she attempts to remain physically and psychologically tense in preparation for the next attack.
Agoraphobia: This is a fear and avoidance of places, events, or situations from which it may be difficult to escape or in which help would not be available if a person becomes trapped. People often misunderstand this condition as a phobia of open spaces and the outdoors, but it is not so simple. A person with agoraphobia may have a fear of leaving home or using elevators and public transport.
Not everyone who worries a lot has an anxiety disorder. You may be anxious because of an overly demanding schedule, lack of exercise or sleep, pressure at home or work, or even from too much caffeine. The bottom line is that if your lifestyle is unhealthy and stressful, you’re more likely to feel anxious—whether or not you actually have an anxiety disorder. These tips can help to lower anxiety and manage symptoms of an anxiety disorder:
When you have an attack, your breath is too short and shallow, meaning it worsens further symptoms. Once you feel the panic – stand up and start doing some simple stretching. If you manage to squeeze in a yawn, that will help you tame the attack even faster. Stretching and yawning instantly helps you relieve muscle tension and interrupt the vicious cycle that is just about to roll in full strength.
Mindfulness practice, meditation, and mindfulness yoga can increase one's awareness of the world around you and increase your control over how you experience situations and how you respond. Loss of feelings of control is often a symptom of anxiety when a person is feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Practicing these strategies can help you live life in the present moment and enjoy the present things in your life that bring you joy.
“Anxiety attack” is not a formal, clinical term, but one that is used by many people to describe all sorts of things, from feeling worried about an upcoming event to intense feelings of terror or fear that would meet the diagnostic criteria for a panic attack. In order to understand what someone means by “anxiety attack,” it is necessary to consider the context in which the symptoms occur.