It is not clear what causes panic disorder. In many people who have the biological vulnerability to panic attacks, they may develop in association with major life changes (such as getting married, having a child, starting a first job, etc.) and major lifestyle stressors. There is also some evidence that suggests that the tendency to develop panic disorder may run in families. People who suffer from panic disorder are also more likely than others to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, or to abuse alcohol or drugs.
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).
For example, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder may experience a panic attack when their schedule or compulsions are interrupted. Individuals who struggle with specific phobias are also susceptible to panic attacks. A person with an extreme fear of heights (acrophobia) may experience a panic attack in a penthouse apartment. And for someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition characterized by extreme fear or worry, the unending anxiety can escalate to a panic attack. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a higher incidence of panic disorder than the general population. Illness or traumatic events increase the chances of panic attacks.
Beta Blockers, also known as beta-adrenergic blocking agents, work by blocking the neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenaline). Blocking adrenaline slows down and reduces the force of heart muscle contraction resulting in decreased blood pressure. Beta blockers also increase the diameter of blood vessels resulting in increased blood flow. Historically, beta blockers have been prescribed to treat the somatic symptoms of anxiety (heart rate and tremors) but they are not very effective at treating the generalized anxiety, panic attacks or phobias. Lopressor and Inderal are some of the brand names with which you might be familiar.
Medication can be used to control or lessen symptoms related to panic disorder. It is most effective when combined with other treatments, such as the aforementioned cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. Medications used to treat panic attacks and panic disorder include antidepressants, though they take several weeks to reach effectiveness. Benzodiazepines such as Ativan and Xanax work quickly. However they are addictive and should only be used for a short time,
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.
Until recently, panic disorder was not distinguished from agoraphobia (distressing anxiety resulting from being outside the home, travelling via public transit, being in open or claustrophobic environments, or being in crowds that generally leads to extreme avoidance due to fear of not being able to escape in those situations; APA, 2013). As it stands in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - 5 agoraphobia is one of the most common disorders to co-occur with panic disorder. Current estimates contend that just under 2% of teens and adults have agoraphobia (Kessler et al., 2012). Often, people associate panic attacks or their panic disorder with certain places, people, or events and the fear of another attack occurring can lead to comorbid fears of the location or idea that there is no escape, which leads to extreme avoidance. Panic disorder can also occur simultaneously with other anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and/or Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), for example.
Cognitive therapy and exposure therapy are two CBT methods that are often used, together or by themselves, to treat social anxiety disorder. Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, challenging, and then neutralizing unhelpful or distorted thoughts underlying anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used along with relaxation exercises and/or imagery.