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At least 6 million Americans suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder both conditions classified as anxiety disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder in a given year and it is twice as common in women as in men. Panic disorder typically affects individuals when they’re in their 20s but is also seen in young children, adolescents, and older adults.
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.
Panic attacks can happen during the day or night. Some people have one panic attack then don't ever experience another, or you might find that you have them regularly, or several in a short space of time. You might notice that particular places, situations or activities seem to trigger panic attacks. For example, they might happen before a stressful appointment.
With panic attacks, we might show them a diagram and explain the fight-or-flight response; their mind or body is trying to help them. If you’ve had a panic attack that came out of the blue, you might become afraid of lightheadedness and avoid activities that spur adrenaline. So we might hyperventilate for a minute in a controlled way to get to the point where they’re not afraid of their own bodily sensation. We work on internal avoidance of those cues that become scary, and desensitize them.
We all tend to avoid certain things or situations that make us uncomfortable or even fearful. But for someone with a phobia, certain places, events or objects create powerful reactions of strong, irrational fear. Most people with specific phobias have several things that can trigger those reactions; to avoid panic, they will work hard to avoid their triggers. Depending on the type and number of triggers, attempts to control fear can take over a person’s life.
The cause of panic attacks is unknown but there are several theories, including a chemical imbalance in the brain or a genetic predisposition. They can be triggered by a variety of conditions and situations, including the presence of a mood disorder, such as anxiety or depression; extreme stress over a long period of time; a physical health problem such as a heart, respiratory, or thyroid condition; overuse of alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine; and the side effects of some medical and recreational drugs. Frequent panic attacks generally indicate a panic disorder. Panic attacks can also occur while an individual is sleeping, causing them to wake up suddenly with feelings of fear and dread. Adolescents and young adults who have panic attacks often have other mental health issues or are at significant risk of developing other issues, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, or other mood disorders, eating disorders, and problems with substance abuse.
It is important to note that genetic factors can also bestow resilience to anxiety disorders, and the field continues to pursue large-scale genomics studies to identify novel genetic factors that are associated with anxiety disorders in hopes of better understanding biological pathways that: 1) contribute to the development and maintenance of anxiety; and 2) may lead to better treatment for these disorders. Most people are not aware of what specific genetic markers they may have that confer risk for anxiety disorders, so a straightforward way to approximate genetic risk is if an individual has a history of anxiety disorders in their family. While both nature and nurture can be at play with family history, if several people have anxiety disorders it is likely that a genetic vulnerability to anxiety exists in that family.
Simple Phobias and Agoraphobia: People with panic disorder often develop irrational fears of specific events or situations that they associate with the possibility of having a panic attack. Fear of heights and fear of crossing bridges are examples of simple phobias. As the frequency of panic attacks increases, the person often begins to avoid situations in which they fear another attack can occur or places where help would not be immediately available. This avoidance may eventually develop into agoraphobia, an inability to go beyond known and safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety. Generally, these fears can be resolved through repeated exposure to the dreaded situations, while practicing specific techniques to become less sensitive to them.
Anxiety disorders are treated through medication and therapy. You might feel embarrassed talking about the things you are feeling and thinking, but talking about it, say experts, is the best treatment. A particular form of therapy is considered most effective: cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT for short. Antidepressants — the types of medication most frequently used to treat depression — are the drugs that also work best for anxiety disorders.

Comorbidity is more common than not with anxiety disorders, meaning that most individuals who experience significant anxiety experience multiple different types of anxiety. Given this co-morbidity, it is not surprising that many risk factors are shared across anxiety disorders, or have the same underlying causes. There is a lot of research identifying risk factors for anxiety disorders, and this research suggests that both nature and nurture are very relevant. It is important to note that no single risk factor is definitive - many people may have a risk factor for a disorder, and not ever develop that disorder. However, it is helpful for research to identify risk factors and for people to be aware of them, as being aware of who might be at risk can potentially help people get support or assistance in order to prevent the development of a disorder.
“Panic disorder is diagnosed if the individual has recurrent panic attacks (minimum four in a four-week period), and at least one of the attacks is accompanied by one or more physical symptoms, including persistent concern about having another attack, worry about the implication or consequences of the attack (i.e., having a heart attack), and/or a significant change in behaviour due to the attacks, such as quitting a job.7 In addition, the panic attacks cannot be due to the physiological effects of a substance or another general medical condition.”[1]

If the person has a family history of seizures or symptoms that are not typical for panic attack, a neurologist may be asked to evaluate the person. There is some overlap between the symptoms of panic attack and what is known as "partial seizures." Distinguishing between the two is important because the treatment for each is quite different. A neurologist, if consulted, will order an EEG (electroencephalogram) to check for seizure activity in the brain. This is a painless test but does require some time to complete (typically overnight).
Carbonell says that understanding the physiology of fainting and reminding yourself of it is important. People faint when their blood pressure drops. A anxiety attack can make you feel like you’re going to faint, but you won’t because your blood pressure doesn't drop during an attack. Remind yourself out loud of truths like these to counter your fears.
Try to adopt a more casual attitude. so when you feel your heart start beating faster, say something to yourself like: Oops! Something set off my stress response, can’t see anything dangerous here. I’ll just wait for a few minutes for my brain and body to realize I’m not in any danger”. This type of self-talk is much better than “There’s something wrong with my heart! I’m having a heart attack, I’m dying!!”
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by uncontrollable anxious thoughts or behaviors. Individuals with OCD are plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts and images or by the urgent need to engage in certain rituals. Some OCD sufferers may only have obsessive thoughts without the related rituals. The disturbing thoughts or images (e.g., fear of germs) are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to get rid of them (e.g., hand washing) are called compulsions. For example, people who are obsessed with germs may wash their hands excessively. The individual is not happy to be performing the ritual behaviors but finds this to be the only way to get temporary relief from the obsessive thought.
The disorder in younger children is less likely to have the symptoms that involve ways of thinking (cognitive symptoms). For example, panic attacks in children may result in the child's grades declining, decreased school attendance, and avoiding that and other separations from their parents. Both children and teens with panic disorder are further at risk for developing substance abuse and depression as well as suicidal thoughts, plans, and/or actions.
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.
Experiencing a chronic medical condition or severe or frequent illness can also increase risk for anxiety disorders, as well as dealing with significant illness of a family member or loved one. Given that several medical conditions have been linked to significant anxiety, in some cases a physician may perform medical tests to rule out an underlying medical condition. For instance, thyroid disease is often characterized by experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety. Menopause, heart disease, and diabetes have also been linked to anxiety symptoms. Additionally, drug abuse or withdrawal for many substances is characterized by acute anxiety, and chronic substance abuse can increase risk for developing an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can also be a side effect of certain medications. Experiencing significant sleep disturbances, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, may also be a risk factor for developing an anxiety disorder.
Other research suggests that social structures that contribute to inequality, such as lower wages, may play a part. In a study published in January 2016 in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Columbia epidemiologists reviewed data on wages and mood disorders, and noted that, at least in their data set, when a woman's pay rose higher than a man's, the odds of her having both generalized anxiety disorder and major depression decreased. (10)
Anxiety attack disorder generally starts with one unexplained attack that can include a number of intense anxiety attack symptoms, which causes the individual to become concerned. As other attacks occur, fear of having anxiety attacks, what they mean, what the associated symptoms mean, and where the attacks and symptoms may lead, increases. This escalation of fear is often the catalyst that brings on the attacks, causing the individual to be seemingly caught in a cycle of fear then panic, then more fear, then more panic, and so on.
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.
As is true for other mood and anxiety disorders, the use of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI's; e.g.., Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft), Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Lorazepam), and Selective Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRI's; e.g., Cymbalta, Effexor, Pristiq) are common medical treatments for panic disorder. Additionally, D-cycloserine is a medication that is now being explored as a way to enhance effects of CBT (e.g., Hofmann et al., 2013). These medications may have side effects and taking them can lead to tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and dependence, so it is important that you consult with a physician before starting or stopping these medications. There is evidence that taking one of these medications in addition to receiving behavioral therapy (e.g., CBT) can significantly benefit patients with panic disorder, although seeking psychotherapy in itself is largely effective (Arch et al., 2017).
ACT is a type of CBT that encourages patients to again in positive behaviors even in the presence of negative thoughts and behaviors. The goal is to improve daily functioning despire having the disorder. It is particularly useful for treatment-resistant Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Depression. The length of treatment varies depending on the severity of symptoms.
Other research suggests that social structures that contribute to inequality, such as lower wages, may play a part. In a study published in January 2016 in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Columbia epidemiologists reviewed data on wages and mood disorders, and noted that, at least in their data set, when a woman's pay rose higher than a man's, the odds of her having both generalized anxiety disorder and major depression decreased. (10)
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.
Anyone can learn how to stop and prevent anxiety attacks. It’s a matter of learning more about them and knowing how to control and prevent them. Most people struggle with problematic anxiety attacks because they don’t understand them, and therefore, fear them…which is a common catalyst into Panic Attack Disorder. The more you know, the better off you’ll be.
Social anxiety varies in degree and severity. For some people, it is characterized by experiencing discomfort or awkwardness during physical social contact (e.g. embracing, shaking hands, etc.), while in other cases it can lead to a fear of interacting with unfamiliar people altogether. Those suffering from this condition may restrict their lifestyles to accommodate the anxiety, minimizing social interaction whenever possible. Social anxiety also forms a core aspect of certain personality disorders, including avoidant personality disorder.[33]
People who have panic attacks typically spend a lot of time worrying about having more attacks and often make seemingly unreasonable lifestyle changes in an attempt to avoid circumstances that will trigger future attacks. They may avoid situations that, they feel, have precipitated previous episodes or environments where they would not be able to escape easily if another attack should occur.

When we are mildly concerned (worried, afraid), the stress response produces a mild reaction in the body. When we are greatly concerned/worried/afraid, the stress response produces a dramatic reaction in the body. Since the stress response is directly proportional to the degree of worry, a panic attack and its symptoms are generally the result of serious worry, concern, and fear.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwanted thoughts or behaviors that seem impossible to stop or control. If you have OCD, you may be troubled by obsessions, such as a recurring worry that you forgot to turn off the oven or that you might hurt someone. You may also suffer from uncontrollable compulsions, such as washing your hands over and over.
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.
A panic attack is a sudden and intense feeling of terror, fear or apprehension, without the presence of actual danger. The symptoms of a panic attack usually happen suddenly, peak within 10 minutes and then subside. However, some attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins.
Panic attacks may also be caused by substances. Discontinuation or marked reduction in the dose of a substance such as a drug (drug withdrawal), for example an antidepressant (antidepressant discontinuation syndrome), can cause a panic attack. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, "the most commonly reported side effects of smoking marijuana are anxiety and panic attacks. Studies report that about 20% to 30% of recreational users experience such problems after smoking marijuana."[16]
There is a long list of signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack. But because each body is somewhat chemically unique, anxiety attacks can affect each person differently. Consequently, anxiety attack symptoms can vary from person to person in type or kind, number, intensity, duration, and frequency. If your symptoms don’t exactly match this list, that doesn’t mean you don’t have anxiety attacks. It simply means that your body is responding to them slightly differently.

These physiological responses can actually help us to survive. However, sometimes we experience these physiological responses, like an increased heartbeat, that are not in the presence of danger at all, but something else entirely. In these cases, our bodies can misinterpret these physiological signals as being indicators of danger or a "true threat." For example, people may experience learned anxiety due to previous associations between elevated heart rate and panic attacks and may misinterpret bodily sensations as signs of imminent death or loss of control. In this way, one may start to fear these physiological responses, which is what we call "fear of fear" (Craske & Barlow, 2007). "Fear of fear" maintains or perpetuates panic attacks and panic symptoms, which becomes a vicious cycle. In other words, you experience an increased heart rate, which you interpret as negative, which makes you feel anxious, which further makes your heart rate increase and it often spirals from there. These associations may almost happen automatically, even without conscious thought, but this is what is likely going on behind the scenes.

Warren: With anxiety to the point where it’s part of a disorder — let’s say generalized anxiety disorder, mostly characterized by anxiety and worry about a whole bunch of different situations — we would treat it by teaching a patient about the role of worry in creating the symptoms and how to manage the worry. That sometimes involves challenging unrealistic thoughts or working to increase one’s ability to tolerate uncertainty, which is a big part of anxiety.


Prolonged exposure therapy is a specific type of CBT used to treat PTSD and phobias. The goal of this therapy is to help patients overcome the overwhelming disstress they experience when reminded of past traumas or in confronting their fears. With the guidance of a licensed therapist, the patient is carefully reintroduced to the trauma memories or reminders. During the exposure, the therapist guides the patient to use coping techniques such as mindfulness or relaxation therapy/imagery. The goal of this therapy is to help patients realize that trauma-related memories (or phobias) are no longer dangerous and do not need to be avoided. This type of treatment usually lasts 8-16 weekly sessions.


Medication can be used to temporarily control or reduce some of the symptoms of panic disorder. However, it doesn’t treat or resolve the problem. Medication can be useful in severe cases, but it should not be the only treatment pursued. Medication is most effective when combined with other treatments, such as therapy and lifestyle changes, that address the underlying causes of panic disorder.
You can learn more about this in the Recovery Support area of our website. Our support area contains a wealth of self-help information on how to treat anxiety disorder, including anxiety attacks. Many find it to be their “one stop” destination for anxiety disorder help. You can click here for more information about our Recovery Support area membership options.
These physiological responses can actually help us to survive. However, sometimes we experience these physiological responses, like an increased heartbeat, that are not in the presence of danger at all, but something else entirely. In these cases, our bodies can misinterpret these physiological signals as being indicators of danger or a "true threat." For example, people may experience learned anxiety due to previous associations between elevated heart rate and panic attacks and may misinterpret bodily sensations as signs of imminent death or loss of control. In this way, one may start to fear these physiological responses, which is what we call "fear of fear" (Craske & Barlow, 2007). "Fear of fear" maintains or perpetuates panic attacks and panic symptoms, which becomes a vicious cycle. In other words, you experience an increased heart rate, which you interpret as negative, which makes you feel anxious, which further makes your heart rate increase and it often spirals from there. These associations may almost happen automatically, even without conscious thought, but this is what is likely going on behind the scenes.
In an anxiety-related disorder, your fear or worry does not go away and can get worse over time. It can influence your life to the extent that it can interfere with daily activities like school, work and/or relationships. Fear, stress, and anxiety are "normal feelings and experiences" but they are completely different than suffering from any of the seven diagnosable disorders plus substance-induced anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and trauma- or stressor-related disorders.
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