When we’re anxious, the body produces a stress response. The stress response is designed to give us an extra ‘boost’ of awareness and energy when we think we could be in danger. The stress response causes a number of physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a perceived threat – to either fight or flee, which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response.’
Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These sensations often mimic symptoms of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. As a result, the diagnosis of panic disorder is frequently not made until extensive and costly medical procedures fail to provide a correct diagnosis or relief.
Says Clyman: "You might start to consider your emotions as changing experiences that are always fluctuating. When we feel distressed, it can seem like the distress is going to go on and on forever until we emotionally combust. But instead, emotions act more like a wave, at times increasing and becoming more intense. But inevitably they'll reach a plateau, subsiding and finally passing."
Without treatment, panic attacks tend to occur repeatedly for months or years. While they typically begin in young adulthood, the symptoms may arise earlier or later in life in some people. Complications, which are symptoms that can develop as a result of continued panic attacks and develop into other mental illnesses, may include specific irrational fears (phobias), especially of leaving home (agoraphobia) and avoidance of social situations. Other possible complications can include depression, work or school problems, suicidal thoughts or actions, financial problems, and alcohol or other substance abuse. For children and adolescents, panic disorder can even interfere with normal development. Panic disorder and other anxiety disorders also predispose sufferers to developing heart or gastrointestinal diseases, high blood pressure or diabetes, having more severe symptoms if they have a respiratory disease, and of dying prematurely.
Anxiety attacks can last anywhere between a few moments to 30 or more minutes. It’s also common for subsequent anxiety attacks to follow, causing the overall anxiety attack experience to last much longer as one episode is followed by another. Even though anxiety attacks eventually end, it’s common for the symptoms and after effects of an anxiety attack to linger for hours or even days, depending upon the severity of the attack and the level of stress your body is under.
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.”
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.
What happens, exactly? "We all physically respond to stress," says Barbara O. Rothbaum, PhD, psychiatry professor and director, Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program, at Atlanta's Emory University School of Medicine. "You might feel anxious about work-related problems, taking a big exam, or making an important decision. But someone who suffers from panic disorder may react to those same moderate pressures with an exaggerated physical reaction-as if he or she were about to be attacked by a wild tiger or fall from a great height. It's full-on, adrenaline-pumping, fight-or-flight response."
Medication does not cure anxiety disorders but can help relieve symptoms. Medication for anxiety is prescribed by doctors, such as a psychiatrist or primary care provider. Some states also allow psychologists who have received specialized training to prescribe psychiatric medications. The most common classes of medications used to combat anxiety disorders are anti-anxiety drugs (such as benzodiazepines), antidepressants, and beta-blockers.