Be well-informed. Learn about Panic Disorder and the treatment options available. Read books, trusted websites (like this one!), and discuss any concerns or questions with a health care provider. Check out Evidence Based Medicine for information on how to critically evaluate the information you read and Communicating With Your Health Care Provider for a list of questions to ask your health care provider.
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:
Your heart beats fast, and your breathing speeds up. Your chest may feel tight, and you might start to sweat. If you've ever felt it, you know that anxiety is just as much a physical state as a mental state. That's because there's a very strong biological chain reaction that occurs when we encounter a stressful event or begin to worry about potential stressors or dangers in the future. Other physical symptoms include sweating, headaches, and insomnia. Psychological symptoms may include feeling restless or irritable, feeling tense, having a feeling of dread, or experiencing ruminative or obsessive thoughts.
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.
Mindfulness involves spending time focusing on the present moment and using a nonjudgmental stance (things are not good or bad, they just are). This may sound straightforward but it can be tricky as our mind often wanders. Try to spend some time each day focusing on a single activity for 10 minutes. For example, focus on the experience of breathing: noticing the physical sensations that you have, the sound of your breath, the feeling of your chest rising and falling as you breathe, the feeling of air entering and leaving your lungs, etc. Try your best to keep your mind focused on these sensations. If you notice your mind wandering, gently redirect it back to the exercise. Engaging in these exercises on a regular basis can help you to feel emotionally centered. Check out websites, apps, and books for more information on mindfulness and guided mindfulness exercises.
You do not need to be officially diagnosed with panic disorder to have an attack. Some people have only one or two panic attacks in their life and don't have panic disorder. Panic attacks are actually much more common than panic disorder. According to one Harvard Medical School survey, about 23 percent of people interviewed experienced at least one panic attack in their lifetime, while only about 3 percent of people experienced panic disorder in their lifetime. (1)
Not everyone understands is that someone with an anxiety disorder cannot "just let things go". This makes the struggle with an anxiety disorder even harder, and may prevent one from looking for help. However, it is very important to talk about these anxieties with someone and preferably find a health care professional as soon as you experience these symptoms. Anxiety should be considered as severe as a physical disease; however, most people in society do not appreciate the severity of this disorder. Some people may consider anxiety a fault or a weakness; however, it may help if people realize that many research studies have demonstrated biological explanations for (some of) the symptoms observed in anxiety disorders. Brain scans have demonstrated brain abnormalities in certain anxiety disorders, and also altered brain functioning has been demonstrated for individuals with anxiety disorders. Furthermore, there is some evidence that anxiety disorders might be linked to chemical imbalances in the brain.
The buildup phase of a panic attack is the most important phase, because it is when you can prevent it. If you are under chronic stress, you become worn down and have no reserve left. Anything can push you over the edge. But if you regularly reduce your stress through a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and mind-body relaxation, you will have enough reserve left to handle life’s surprises.
It is not unusual to experience only one or two symptoms at a time, such as vibrations in their legs, shortness of breath, or an intense wave of heat traveling up their bodies, which is not similar to hot flashes due to estrogen shortage. Some symptoms, such as vibrations in the legs, are sufficiently different from any normal sensation that they clearly indicate panic disorder. Other symptoms on the list can occur in people who may or may not have panic disorder. Panic disorder does not require four or more symptoms to all be present at the same time. Causeless panic and racing heartbeat are sufficient to indicate a panic attack.
People generally can overcome panic attacks faster if they seek help after the first one or two, says psychologist Cheryl Carmin, PhD, director of clinical psychology training at the Wexner Medical Center and a professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. When you do seek help, your doctor or therapist will ask about your symptoms and the situations in which they arise, and might also recommend additional medical testing to rule out other health concerns.
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.
This publication is in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without permission from NIMH. Citation of NIMH as a source is appreciated. We encourage you to reproduce it and use it in your efforts to improve public health. However, using government materials inappropriately can raise legal or ethical concerns, so we ask you to use these guidelines:
Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days (broken up into short periods if that’s easier). Rhythmic activities that require moving both your arms and legs are especially effective. Try walking, running, swimming, martial arts, or dancing.
It's important to note that everyone feels anxiety to some degree regularly throughout their life - fear and anxiety are adaptive and helpful emotions that can function to help us notice danger or threat, keep us safe, and help us adapt to the environment. Anxiety disorders represent states when fear or anxiety becomes severe or extreme, to the extent that it causes an individual significant distress, or impairs their ability to function in important facets of life such as work, school, or relationships. It is also important that risk factors don't at all imply that anxiety is anyone's fault; anxiety disorders are a very common difficulty that people experience. In this section, we will review risk factors for anxiety disorders. There are many potential risk factors for anxiety disorders, and most people likely experience multiple different combinations of risk factors, such as neurobiological factors, genetic markers, environmental factors, and life experiences. However, we do not yet fully understand what causes some people to have anxiety disorders.
Have you ever experienced an intense feeling of terror, fear or apprehension, for no apparent reason? If you have, you may have experienced a panic attack. If you experience recurrent panic attacks, you may have a condition called panic disorder. Panic attacks can also be the sign of other underlying medical or mental health conditions, including sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or depression.
2) If you suddenly feel your heart pounding or experience other physical clues that a panic attack is barreling for you, try this distraction suggested by Rob Cole, LHMC, clinical director of mental health services at Banyan Treatment Centers. Start counting backward from 100 by 3s. The act of counting at random intervals helps you to focus and override the anxious thoughts that are trying to sneak into your psyche. Better still keep loose change in your pocket. Add a dime to a nickel, then add two pennies and so on. By controlling your thoughts and focusing on something outside yourself you will being to feel calmer.
Panic attacks are common among all anxiety disorders but what sets panic disorder apart is that panic attacks are unexpected and occur "out of the blue" without an obvious trigger (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Craske & Barlow, 2007). These unexpected panic attacks must be associated with a significant change in behavior or be followed by at least one month of persistent worry about having another attack or about what will happen if you have another panic attack.
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.