Paula had her next panic attack three weeks later, and since then, they’ve been occurring with increasing frequency. She never knows when or where she’ll suffer an attack, but she’s afraid of having one in public. Consequently, she’s been staying home after work, rather than going out with friends. She also refuses to ride the elevator up to her 12th floor office out of fear of being trapped if she has a panic attack.
But flashbacks may occur with other types of anxiety as well. Some research, including a 2006 study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, suggests that some people with social anxiety have PTSD-like flashbacks of experiences that might not seem obviously traumatic, such as being publicly ridiculed. These people may even avoid reminders of the experience—another symptom reminiscent of PTSD.
Chest pain is always an alarming symptom, because most of us (appropriately) associate it with cardiac conditions, in particular angina or a myocardial infarction (heart attack). However, chest pain can also be caused by a number of conditions that have nothing to do with the heart. And one of the more common non-cardiac problems that frequently produces chest pain is an anxiety attack.
Most of the symptoms of a panic attack are physical, and many times these symptoms are so severe that you may think you’re having a heart attack. In fact, many people suffering from panic attacks make repeated trips to the doctor or the emergency room in an attempt to get treatment for what they believe is a life-threatening medical problem. While it’s important to rule out possible medical causes of symptoms such as chest pain, elevated heart rate, or difficulty breathing, it’s often panic that is overlooked as a potential cause—not the other way around.
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.
Cognitive distortions such as overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, mind reading, emotional reasoning, binocular trick, and mental filter can result in anxiety. For example, an overgeneralized belief that something bad "always" happens may lead someone to have excessive fears of even minimally risky situations and to avoid benign social situations due to anticipatory anxiety of embarrassment. In addition, those who have high anxiety can also create future stressful life events. Together, these findings suggest that anxious thoughts can lead to anticipatory anxiety as well stressful events, which in turn cause more anxiety. Such unhealthy thoughts can be targets for successful treatment with cognitive therapy.
Almost everyone experiencing symptoms of a panic attack needs evaluation. Unless the person has a history of having panic attacks, is otherwise healthy, and is experiencing a typical attack, they must be evaluated promptly by a doctor. The level of evaluation depends on many factors. Err on the side of safety when deciding whether to go to a hospital's emergency department.
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.
If you’ve been experiencing panic attacks or think you may have panic disorder, we encourage you to seek diagnosis and treatment from your doctor and a mental health professional. Although panic attacks can feel like a debilitating and embarrassing condition, it is important to remember that you aren’t alone and your mental health is nothing to be embarrassed about. There are a variety of resources available to you for advice and support, both online and in the form of support groups. For more information, ask your healthcare provider about what is available in your area and check out the links below:
NOTE: The Symptoms Listing section in the Recovery Support area of our website contains detailed information about most of the symptoms commonly associated with anxiety and panic. This information includes the sensations commonly experienced, whether it is an anxiety symptom or not, what causes them to occur, and what you can do to treat them. Much of this information isn’t found elsewhere.
Why stress happens and how to manage it Stress is essential for survival; the chemicals it triggers help the body prepare to face danger and cope with difficulty. Long-term stress is linked to various health conditions and can cause physical and psychological symptoms. How is it diagnosed, what types of stress are there, and how is it treated or managed? Read now
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).
Although beta-blockers are most often used to treat high blood pressure, they can also be used to help relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, shaking, trembling, and blushing. These medications, when taken for a short period of time, can help people keep physical symptoms under control. They can also be used “as needed” to reduce acute anxiety, including as a preventive intervention for some predictable forms of performance anxieties.