People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).
Panic attacks are generally brief, lasting less than 10 minutes, although some of the symptoms may persist for a longer time. People who have had one panic attack are at greater risk for having subsequent panic attacks than those who have never experienced a panic attack. When the attacks occur repeatedly, and there is worry about having more episodes, a person is considered to have a condition known as panic disorder.
Fortunately, panic disorder is one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders. Psychotherapy (sometimes called talk therapy), cognitive, or biofeedback therapy can all help alter a person's response to stimuli. Medications, such as antidepressants and beta-blockers, are another option. And certain lifestyle changes, such as limiting caffeine and sticking to a daily exercise plan, can decrease symptoms as well.
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.
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."
Almost everyone has something they fear – maybe it's spiders, enclosed spaces, or heights. When we encounter these "threats," our hearts might begin to race, or our hands may become sweaty. Many fear-related disorders are treated using exposure therapy. This helps people "unlearn" a threat fear response by breaking the association between the "trigger." Imagination allows patients to immerse themselves with a triggering stimulus in a controlled way, at their own pace, which is why it could be a promising new form of treatment.
There are also things that people with panic disorder can do to learn how to handle it and to make treatment more effective. Since substances like drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages, or using illicit drugs can worsen panic attacks, those things should be avoided. Other tips to prevent or manage panic attacks include engaging in aerobic exercise and stress-management techniques like deep breathing, massage therapy, and yoga, since these self-help activities have also been found to help decrease the frequency and severity of panic attacks. Although many people use home remedies like breathing into a paper bag when afflicted by the hyperventilation that can be associated with panic, the benefit received may be the result of the individual believing it will remedy the symptoms (placebo effect). Also, breathing into a paper bag when one is already having trouble breathing can make matters worse when the hyperventilation is the result of conditions of oxygen deprivation, like an asthma attack or a heart attack.
People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) display excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances. The fear and anxiety can cause significant problems in areas of their life, such as social interactions, school, and work.