Fear and anxiety can be differentiated in four domains: (1) duration of emotional experience, (2) temporal focus, (3) specificity of the threat, and (4) motivated direction. Fear is short lived, present focused, geared towards a specific threat, and facilitating escape from threat; anxiety, on the other hand, is long-acting, future focused, broadly focused towards a diffuse threat, and promoting excessive caution while approaching a potential threat and interferes with constructive coping.
While conducting research for this article, we encountered more than a dozen mental health professionals who mistakenly believed the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” were synonymous. They were licensed professionals, but none of them had a specialty in anxiety. Because “anxiety attack” is not a clinical term, they assumed it was a synonym for “panic attack.” This caused them to use the terms interchangeably.
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.
Only 16, Caroline, had her first panic attack a year ago. Her mother was dropping her off at her summer job at a local school when, without warning, a full-blown panic attack engulfed her. “My heart started racing and my body felt so hot. I started to sweat and shake uncontrollably. My vision became distorted and my body felt limp, like a wet noodle,” she says. For 20 minutes, until the panic attacked passed, Caroline refused to get out of the car. Her mother didn’t know what to do.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by a general feature of excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. worrying about a future threat) and can have negative behavioral and emotional consequences. Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders are characterized by obsessive, intrusive thoughts (e.g., constantly worrying about staying clean, or about one's body size) that trigger related, compulsive behaviors (e.g. repeated hand-washing, or excessive exercise). These behaviors are performed to alleviate the anxiety associated with the obsessive thoughts. Trauma- and stressor- related anxiety disorders are related to the experience of a trauma (e.g., unexpected death of a loved one, a car accident, or a violent incident) or stressor (e.g., divorce, beginning college, moving).
“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.
Your brain focuses on some alleged thread, for instance, a very scary thought that was floating somewhere at your subconscious. Your thalamus – the part of the brain responsible for regulating consciousness, sleep and alertness – transfers that information to your amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, decision-making and memory – which marks it as “danger” and sends a signal to your sympathetic nervous system, activating the fight-or-flight response.
The degree of accompanying stress response and its physiological, psychological, and emotional changes are directly proportional to the degree of anxiety. For example, if you are only slightly concerned, such as being slightly nervous about meeting someone new, the body produces a small degree stress response. The small degree stress response can be so slight that you don’t even notice it.
4) Ice, Ice Baby. For nighttime panic attacks, Kirstie Craine Ruiz keeps about 4 ready-to-go ice packs—2 big and 2 small– in her freezer. When she feels panic coming she puts two small ones in her hand and the 2 large ones on my lower back. “If your heart is really racing and your breathing is bad, I would suggest taking the one on your belly and rubbing it from the middle of your chest down to the bottom of your belly, slowly, and over and over until your heart rate starts to mellow (over your shirt, of course- you don’t want to make yourself freezing!). I feel like when I do this, it literally moves the hyper energy down from my chest and alleviates any chest pain. This method always helps me when it feels like my heart is in my throat. Once you feel as though you can breathe again, place the packs on your lower belly or lower back, and in the palms of your hands. I don’t know if it’s pressure points but holding small smooth ice packs in both hands with palms up, does wonders for my panic, to this day.”
Anxiety, worry, and stress are all a part of most people’s everyday lives. But simply experiencing anxiety or stress in and of itself does not mean you need to get professional help or that you have an anxiety disorder. In fact, anxiety is an important and sometimes necessary warning signal of a dangerous or difficult situation. Without anxiety, we would have no way of anticipating difficulties ahead and preparing for them.
Anxiety disorders increase one's chances for suffering from other medical illness, such as cardiovascular disorders, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. More specifically, increased body weight and abdominal fat, high blood pressure, and greater levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose have all been linked to anxiety. While it is still unclear what causes the high co-morbidity between anxiety and bad physical health outcomes, research suggests that changes in underlying biology that is characteristic of anxiety may also facilitate the emergence for these other physical health outcomes over time. For example, changes in stress hormones, autonomic responses, as well as heightened systemic inflammation are all associated with anxiety disorders and negative health outcomes. These shared physiological states suggest a shared underlying biology and that anxiety maybe a whole-body condition.
Contextual factors that are thought to contribute to anxiety include gender socialization and learning experiences. In particular, learning mastery (the degree to which people perceive their lives to be under their own control) and instrumentality, which includes such traits as self-confidence, independence, and competitiveness fully mediate the relation between gender and anxiety. That is, though gender differences in anxiety exist, with higher levels of anxiety in women compared to men, gender socialization and learning mastery explain these gender differences.[medical citation needed] Research has demonstrated the ways in which facial prominence in photographic images differs between men and women. More specifically, in official online photographs of politicians around the world, women's faces are less prominent than men's. The difference in these images actually tended to be greater in cultures with greater institutional gender equality.
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 attacks, also called panic attacks, are episodes of intense fear and emotional distress that usually occur suddenly and without warning, and typically last from several minutes up to an hour. These attacks may have a discrete trigger, but they also can occur without any identifiable cause. Anxiety attacks are often recurrent, and are very distressing to the people who experience them, as well as their loved ones.
Physical Symptoms: People with panic disorder may also have irritable bowel syndrome, characterized by intermittent bouts of gastrointestinal cramps and diarrhea or constipation, or a relatively minor heart problem called mitral valve prolapse, which can trigger panic attacks in some people. In fact, panic disorder often coexists with unexplained medical problems, such as chest pain not associated with a heart attack or chronic fatigue.
Mitral valve prolapse (MVP), also called "click murmur syndrome" and "Barlow's syndrome," is the most common type of heart valve abnormality. Usually, people with mitral valve prolapse have no signs and symptoms; however, if the prolapsed valve is severe, symptoms may appear. When symptoms of severe mitral valve prolapse do appear, they may include, fatigue, palpitations, chest pain, anxiety, migraine headaches, and pulmonary edema. Echocardiography is the most useful test for mitral valve prolapse. Most people with mitral valve need no treatment. However, if the valve prolapse is severe, treatment medications or surgery may be necessary to repair the heart valve.
Anxiety disorders can often be addressed successfully with a combination of therapy and medication. For therapy, patients may undergo psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, in which they learn to change how they respond to situations that induce anxiety. For medications, clinicians may, for limited periods of time, prescribe antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or tricyclics, tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines; they may also prescribe beta blockers for specific events. Different strategies can also help people who experience feelings of anxiety but the severity of which falls below the clinical threshold for diagnosis. Habits such as exercising, sleeping well, and limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol consumed can prove helpful. Strategies such as taking deep breaths, acknowledging limits to fully controlling situations, pushing back against anxious or irrational thoughts, and observing the circumstances that tend to produce anxiety are proven to reduce anxiety by helping people feel better prepared in the future.
Panic attacks involve sudden feelings of terror that strike without warning. These episodes can occur at any time, even during sleep. People experiencing a panic attack may believe they are having a heart attack or they are dying or going crazy. The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them. Most people with panic attacks experience several of the following symptoms:
Genetics and family history (e.g., parental anxiety) may predispose an individual for an increased risk of an anxiety disorder, but generally external stimuli will trigger its onset or exacerbation. Genetic differences account for about 43% of variance in panic disorder and 28% in generalized anxiety disorder. Although single genes are neither necessary nor sufficient for anxiety by themselves, several gene polymorphisms have been found to correlate with anxiety: PLXNA2, SERT, CRH, COMT and BDNF. Several of these genes influence neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and norepinephrine) and hormones (such as cortisol) which are implicated in anxiety. The epigenetic signature of at least one of these genes BDNF has also been associated with anxiety and specific patterns of neural activity.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used for diagnosis of mental health disorders, and is widely used by health care professionals around the world. For each disorder, the DSM has a description of symptoms and other criteria to diagnose the disorder. The DSM is important, because it allows different clinicians and/or researchers to use the same language when discussing mental health disorders. The first DSM was published in 1952 and has been updated several times after new research and knowledge became available. In 2013, the most recent version of the DSM, the DSM-5, was released. There are a few important differences with its predecessor DSM-IV regarding anxiety disorders. First, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not part of the anxiety disorders any more, but now has its own category: Obsessive-Compulsive, Stereotypic and related disorders. Second, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) now also has its own category: Trauma and Stressor-related Disorders.
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.