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.
In contrast, the term anxiety attack is not a specifier outlined in the DSM-5. Rather, anxiety is used to describe a core feature of multiple different anxiety disorders. The culmination of symptoms that result from being in a state of anxiety—such as restlessness, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and difficulty concentrating—may feel like an “attack,” but are generally less intense than those experienced at the height of a panic attack.
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.
This may sound counter-intuitive but trying to accept one's emotional experience can be very helpful during panic attacks. Remind yourself that anxiety is like a wave, what goes up must come down. Fighting against the experience engages the "fear of fear" cycle that can make you feel even worse. If you notice panic symptoms creeping up, label your experience and you remind yourself, "I will be okay. This will pass in time." Accepting your experience, rather than fighting against it, will likely help your panic symptoms reduce more quickly and will feel easier along the way.
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.
Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days (broken up into short periods if that’s easier). Rhythmic activities that require moving both your arms and legs are especially effective. Try walking, running, swimming, martial arts, or dancing.
For people who may be wondering how to avoid panic attacks using treatment without prescribed medication, natural remedies may be an option. While herbal supplements that contain kava have been found to be helpful for some people with mild to moderate panic disorder, the research data is still considered to be too limited for many physicians to recommend treatment with other natural remedies like valerian or passionflower. Also, care should be taken when taking any dietary supplements, since supplements are not regulated in terms of quality, content, or effectiveness.
Agoraphobia is often comorbid with panic disorder — meaning people often suffer from both conditions at the same time. It's an intense fear of not being able to escape whatever place you're in, and can often lead to an avoidance of leaving the house. People with agoraphobia can fear situations where this anxiety might flare up, and typically don't feel comfortable or safe in public, crowded places.
Kirstie Craine Ruiz, 46, has lived with anxiety, panic attacks, and panic disorder for about ten years. For a long time, she had full-blown attacks 2-3 nights a week. “I would usually awake to a racing heart or the feeling of my heart expanding in my chest…like it might explode… From there, I would begin to panic and my heart would go even faster….and my body would shake so hard that it felt like I was having a convulsion. I could barely breathe and was usually pretty sure I was having a heart attack and that I was going to die. Sometimes I’d go the ER and they’d hold me overnight because my heart would be going so fast and they couldn’t get it to go down.”
Treatment for panic disorder includes medication, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy, teaches people how to view panic attacks differently and demonstrates ways to reduce anxiety. Appropriate treatment by an experienced professional can reduce or prevent panic attacks in 70 to 90% of people with panic disorder. Most patients show significant progress after a few weeks of therapy. Relapses may occur, but they can often be effectively treated just like the initial episode.
Panic attacks cause a variety of distressing symptoms that can be terrifying for the individual experiencing the attack. Some people mistake panic attacks for heart attacks and many believe that they are dying. Others feel a mixture of self-doubt or impending doom. Some can also find the episodes extremely embarrassing and refrain from telling their friends, family, or a mental health professional.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic and exaggerated worry and tension, much more than the typical anxiety that most people experience in their daily lives. People may have trembling, twitching, muscle tension, nausea, irritability, poor concentration, depression, fatigue, headaches, light-headedness, breathlessness or hot flashes.
In addition to the emotional turmoil and the physical manifestations that Caroline and Kirstie describe panic attacks can cause palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath or smothering; feelings of choking; chest pain or discomfort; nausea or abdominal distress; feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint; chills or overheating; numbness or tingling; feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization); fear of losing control or “going crazy”; and fear of dying.
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.
A helpful approach to distinguishing normal anxiety from an anxiety disorder is to identify the cause of the anxiety, and then assess whether the anxiety symptoms are a proportional response to it. Worries, fears, and intrusive thoughts that are extreme, unrealistic, or exaggerated and interfere with normal life and functioning could constitute an anxiety disorder. For instance, being concerned about getting sick and taking steps to avoid germs, like using hand sanitizer and avoiding touching door handles, does not necessarily constitute an anxiety disorder; however, if the concern about sickness makes it difficult to leave the house, then it is possible that the person suffers from an anxiety or anxiety-related disorder.
Great questions. Unfortunately, there is usually no clear cut answer – and like many mental health disorders – it is likely caused by a combination of genetic, behavioral, and developmental factors. Anatomically speaking, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is most closely related to a disruption in the functional connectivity of the amygdala – the “emotional control center” of the brain – and how it processes feelings of fear and anxiety. Genetics also play a role in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. If you have a family member that also suffers from this disorder, your chances of suffering from it are increased, especially in the presence of a life stressor. Interestingly, long-term substance abuse also increases your chances of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as the use of benzodiazepines can worsen your anxiety levels, as can excessive alcohol use. Tobacco use and caffeine are also both associated with increased levels of anxiety.
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If you have a debilitating fear of being seen negatively by others and humiliated in public, you may have social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia. Social anxiety disorder can be thought of as extreme shyness. In severe cases, social situations are avoided altogether. Performance anxiety (better known as stage fright) is the most common type of social phobia.
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.
For more information, please visit Mental Health Medications Health Topic webpage. Please note that any information on this website regarding medications is provided for educational purposes only and may be outdated. Diagnosis and treatment decisions should be made in consultation with your doctor. Information about medications changes frequently. Please visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for the latest information on warnings, patient medication guides, or newly approved medications.