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.


I have occasional panic attacks, typically around one or two of what I consider minor panic attacks per month. A minor panic attack is one that I catch and manage to head off before it grows full-blown. I just have so much experience having and handling panic attacks that I’ve learned the curb them…usually. Sometimes, my coping mechanisms don’t work and I’m left suffering a full-blown panic attack and, of course, they’re terrible. I’m always on the lookout for new and better coping mechanisms to minimize the chances of one slipping through like that.
While everyone experiences brief episodes of intense anxiety from time to time, and a great many people experience one or two anxiety attacks over the course of their lifetime, anxiety attack disorder occurs when these attacks become frequent or persistent, begin interfering with or restricting normal lifestyle, or when the individual becomes afraid of them. Once established, anxiety attack disorder can be very debilitating.
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.
Repeated and persistent thoughts ("obsessions") that typically cause distress and that an individual attempts to alleviate by repeatedly performing specific actions ("compulsions"). Examples of common obsessions include: fear that failing to do things in a particular way will result in harm to self or others, extreme anxiety about being dirty or contaminated by germs, concern about forgetting to do something important that may result in bad outcomes, or obsessions around exactness or symmetry. Examples of common compulsions include: checking (e.g., that the door is locked or for an error), counting or ordering (e.g., money or household items), and performing a mental action (e.g., praying).
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.
As with most behavioral illnesses, the causes of panic attacks are many. Certainly there is evidence that the tendency to have panic attacks can sometimes be inherited. However, there is also evidence that panic may be a learned response and that the attacks can be initiated in otherwise healthy people simply given the right set of circumstances. Research into the causes of panic attacks is ongoing.
The psychotherapy component of treatment for panic disorder is at least as important as medication. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medication alone in the long-term management of panic attacks. In overcoming anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy treatment, for both adults and children. This form of psychotherapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the irrational thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms and can be done either individually, in group therapy, in partner-assisted therapy, and even over the Internet. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation techniques (like breathing techniques or guided imagery) and gradually increasing exposure to situations that may have previously triggered anxiety in the panic disorder sufferer. Helping the person with anxiety understand how to handle the emotional forces that may have contributed to developing symptoms (panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy) has also been found to be effective in teaching an individual with panic disorder how to prevent an anxiety attack or how to calm down in order to decrease or stop a panic attack once it starts.
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."
Generally, anxiety arises first, often during childhood. Evidence suggests that both biology and environment can contribute to the disorder. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety; however, even so, development of the condition is not inevitable. Early traumatic experiences can also reset the body’s normal fear-processing system so that it is hyper-reactive.
Repeated and persistent thoughts ("obsessions") that typically cause distress and that an individual attempts to alleviate by repeatedly performing specific actions ("compulsions"). Examples of common obsessions include: fear that failing to do things in a particular way will result in harm to self or others, extreme anxiety about being dirty or contaminated by germs, concern about forgetting to do something important that may result in bad outcomes, or obsessions around exactness or symmetry. Examples of common compulsions include: checking (e.g., that the door is locked or for an error), counting or ordering (e.g., money or household items), and performing a mental action (e.g., praying).
Depression is a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested in life in general for more than two weeks and when the feelings interfere with daily activities. Major depression is a treatable illness that affects the way a person thinks, feels, behaves, and functions. At any point in time, 3 to 5 percent of people suffer from major depression; the lifetime risk is about 17 percent.
The electrocardiograph in a person with panic attacks often shows tachycardia, but does not usually show any of the changes typically seen in people with heart attacks or angina. However, if significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease are present, a noninvasive evaluation to rule out coronary artery disease (CAD) may sometimes be a good idea.
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]
There are many types of psychotherapies used to treat anxiety. Unlike counseling, psychotherapy is more long-term and targets a broader range of issues such as patterns of behavior. The patient's particular anxiety diagnosis and personal preference guides what therapies would be best suited to treat them. The ultimate goal with any type of psychotherapy, is to help the patient regulate their emotions, manage stress, understand patterns in behavior that affect their interpersonal relationships. Evidenced-based therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) are some of the most effective at treating anxiety.
One of the scariest early experiences in panic disorder is having a panic attack and not knowing what is happening to your body. By learning more about panic attacks and panic disorder, you can start to label and identify the experience that you are having. Although the experience of panic attacks is very distressing, having a panic attack will not cause you to die or to completely lose control and they do not mean that you are going crazy. Sometimes, just knowing what is going on can help people to feel better. For example, the next time you have a panic attack, you can tell yourself "this is anxiety. I have felt this before and I was okay."
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders characterized by exaggerated feelings of anxiety and fear responses.[10] Anxiety is a worry about future events and fear is a reaction to current events. These feelings may cause physical symptoms, such as a fast heart rate and shakiness. There are a number of anxiety disorders: including generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobia, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, and selective mutism. The disorder differs by what results in the symptoms. People often have more than one anxiety disorder.[10]
The psychotherapy component of treatment for panic disorder is at least as important as medication. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medication alone in the long-term management of panic attacks. In overcoming anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy treatment, for both adults and children. This form of psychotherapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the irrational thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms and can be done either individually, in group therapy, in partner-assisted therapy, and even over the Internet. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation techniques (like breathing techniques or guided imagery) and gradually increasing exposure to situations that may have previously triggered anxiety in the panic disorder sufferer. Helping the person with anxiety understand how to handle the emotional forces that may have contributed to developing symptoms (panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy) has also been found to be effective in teaching an individual with panic disorder how to prevent an anxiety attack or how to calm down in order to decrease or stop a panic attack once it starts.
Since panic attacks are caused by overly apprehensive behavior or chronic stress, addressing our overly apprehensive behavior and stress can stop and prevent panic attacks, and eventually, panic disorder. The combination of good self-help information and therapy is the most effective way of addressing overly apprehensive behavior.[2] Accessing good self-help information and applying it is a good way to reduce stress.
Research is inconsistent as to whether nutritional deficiencies (for example, zinc or magnesium deficiency) may be risk factors for panic disorder. While food additives like aspartame, alone or in combination with food dyes, are suspected to play a role in the development of panic attacks in some people, it has not been confirmed by research so far.
The prognosis for people who suffer a panic attack is overall, good. Some people have a single attack and are never bothered again. Yet, two-thirds of people experiencing a panic attack go on to be diagnosed with panic disorder. Also, half of those who go through a panic attack might develop clinical depression within the following year, if not treated promptly. Occasionally, a person will, after a long evaluation, be diagnosed with a medical condition that causes panic symptoms.
Fortunately, panic disorder is a treatable condition. Psychotherapy and medications have both been used, either singly or in combination, for successful treatment of panic disorder. If medication is necessary, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, certain antidepressants or sometimes certain anticonvulsant drugs that also have anti-anxiety properties, or a class of heart medications known as beta-blockers to help prevent or control the episodes in panic disorder.
So I can tell you that panic attacks aren't dangerous, but I recognize that this is "easy for me to say". If you're having anxiety attacks, especially if they're a relatively new occurrence for you, you might not be able to believe this right now. That's entirely understandable when you feel that your life is threatened! You don't need to take anything here on faith. Instead, check it all out. Test everything I say against your own experience, as you work your way through this site.
Demographic factors also impact risk for anxiety disorders. While there is not a strong consensus, research suggests that risk for anxiety disorders decreases over the lifespan with lower risk being demonstrated later in life. Women are significantly more likely to experience anxiety disorders. Another robust biological and sociodemographic risk factor for anxiety disorders is gender, as women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety. Overall symptom severity has also been shown to be more severe in women compared to men, and women with anxiety disorders typically report a lower quality of life than men. This sex difference in the prevalence and severity of anxiety disorders that puts women at a disadvantage over men is not specific to anxiety disorders, but is also found in depression and other stress-related adverse health outcomes (i.e. obesity and cardiometabolic disease). Basic science and clinical studies suggest that ovarian hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, and their fluctuations may play an important role in this sex difference in anxiety disorder prevalence and severity. While changes in estrogen and progesterone, over the month as well as over the lifetime, are linked to change in anxiety symptom severity and have been shown to impact systems implicated in the etiology of anxiety disorders (i.e. the stress axis), it still remains unclear how these hormones and their fluctuations increase women's vulnerability to anxiety.
While separation anxiety is a normal stage of development, if anxieties intensify or are persistent enough to get in the way of school or other activities, your child may have separation anxiety disorder. Children with separation anxiety disorder may become agitated at just the thought of being away from mom or dad and complain of sickness to avoid playing with friends or going to school.
Women are more than two times as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. (6) It’s not clear why this is the case, but researchers have theorized that it may be due to a combination of social and biological factors. Scientists are still investigating the complex role that sex plays in brain chemistry, but some research suggests that in women, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for processing potential threats, may be more sensitive to negative stimuli and may hold on to the memory of it longer. (7) 
The review, conducted by researchers at Cambridge University in England, also found that people with chronic health conditions were more likely to experience anxiety. According to the review, almost 11 percent of people with heart disease in Western countries reported having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In addition, 32 percent of those with multiple sclerosis had some kind of anxiety disorder. (3)
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.
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