Exposure therapy for panic disorder allows you to experience the physical sensations of panic in a safe and controlled environment, giving you the opportunity to learn healthier ways of coping. You may be asked to hyperventilate, shake your head from side to side, or hold your breath. These different exercises cause sensations similar to the symptoms of panic. With each exposure, you become less afraid of these internal bodily sensations and feel a greater sense of control over your panic.
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.
Certain traumatic events can eventually cause someone to develop panic disorder. For example, therapist Shannon Nuñez, who is also the Clinical Director at the Pathway to Hope addiction treatment center, has worked with clients who developed panic disorder after witnessing sudden deaths. Witnessing a sudden death can make people feel like they could die in a moment and at any time, causing panic attacks.
Since anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, they can look very different from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. Someone else may struggle with a disabling fear of driving, or uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts. Yet another may live in a constant state of tension, worrying about anything and everything. But despite their different forms, all anxiety disorders illicit an intense fear or anxiety out of proportion to the situation at hand.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to danger, the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response that is triggered when you feel threatened, under pressure, or are facing a stressful situation. In moderation, anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can help you to stay alert and focused, spur you to action, and motivate you to solve problems. But when anxiety is constant or overwhelming—when it interferes with your relationships and daily activities—you’ve likely crossed the line from normal anxiety into the territory of an anxiety disorder.
The theologian Paul Tillich characterized existential anxiety[27] as "the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing" and he listed three categories for the nonbeing and resulting anxiety: ontic (fate and death), moral (guilt and condemnation), and spiritual (emptiness and meaninglessness). According to Tillich, the last of these three types of existential anxiety, i.e. spiritual anxiety, is predominant in modern times while the others were predominant in earlier periods. Tillich argues that this anxiety can be accepted as part of the human condition or it can be resisted but with negative consequences. In its pathological form, spiritual anxiety may tend to "drive the person toward the creation of certitude in systems of meaning which are supported by tradition and authority" even though such "undoubted certitude is not built on the rock of reality".[27]
Some research suggests that your body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up as your body prepared for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. But it's unknown why a panic attack occurs when there's no obvious danger present.
Once you are under enough stress, almost anything can set off a panic attack. Suppose you are under a lot of stress, but still managing. If you add even more stress, your brain will begin to feel under siege. Your body will respond by releasing adrenaline as part of the fight or flight response. That will cause more anxiety, which will create a vicious feedback that will turn into a panic disorder.
There are several different anxiety-related disorders. Some symptoms overlap across many of these disorders, and others are more specific to a single disorder. In general, however, all anxiety-related disorders feature worry, nervousness, or fear that is ongoing, excessive, and has negative effects on a person's ability to function. It can be tricky to decide when anxiety is typical or linked to a disorder, which is why diagnoses should be made by licensed professionals, such as psychologists or psychiatrists.
These attacks are a symptom of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder that affects some 2.4 million U.S. adults. The disorder most often begins during the late teens and early adulthood and strikes twice as many American women as men. No one knows what causes panic disorder, though researchers suspect a combination of biological and environmental factors, including family history (panic disorder seems to run in families), stressful life events, drug and alcohol abuse, and thinking patterns that exaggerate normal physical reactions.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an extreme anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event. PTSD can be thought of as a panic attack that rarely, if ever, lets up. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks or nightmares about what happened, hypervigilance, startling easily, withdrawing from others, and avoiding situations that remind you of the event.
Says Clyman: "You might start to consider your emotions as changing experiences that are always fluctuating. When we feel distressed, it can seem like the distress is going to go on and on forever until we emotionally combust. But instead, emotions act more like a wave, at times increasing and becoming more intense. But inevitably they'll reach a plateau, subsiding and finally passing."
While the use of drugs in treating panic attacks can be very successful, it is generally recommended that people also be in some form of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Drug treatments are usually used throughout the duration of panic attack symptoms, and discontinued after the patient has been free of symptoms for at least six months. It is usually safest to withdraw from these drugs gradually while undergoing therapy.[14] While drug treatment seems promising for children and adolescents, they are at an increased risk of suicide while taking these medications and their well-being should be monitored closely.[59]
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.
A healthy diet is also important to reduce and prevent anxiety. It seems counterintuitive that you can "eat your way to calm" but sustaining a healthy diet can really help you to feel more at ease on a regular basis, despite stressors. Some foods that are particularly helpful for reducing anxiety include foods with omega 3 fatty acids (i.e., salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed) and probiotics. Avoid greasy, sugary, high-fat, and processed foods. Additionally, avoiding caffeine when feeling anxious as well as unhealthy substances (i.e., alcohol) could be beneficial. Drinking alcohol might seem like a good way to calm down, but it can lead to sustained anxious symptoms. Incorporating a healthy diet into your lifestyle is fundamental to preventing and reducing anxiety.
Moreover, this hypocapnia and release of adrenaline during a panic attack cause vasoconstriction resulting in slightly less blood flow to the head which causes dizziness and lightheadedness.[28][29] A panic attack can cause blood sugar to be drawn away from the brain and toward the major muscles. Neuroimaging suggests heightened activity in the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, and brainstem regions including the periaqueductal gray, parabrachial nucleus, and Locus coeruleus.[30] In particular, the amygdala has been suggested to have a critical role.[31] The combination of high arousal in the amygdala and brainstem along with decreased blood flow and blood sugar in the brain can lead to dramatically decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain.[32] There is evidence that having an anxiety disorder increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).[33] Those affected also have a reduction in heart rate variability.[33]
At some point in our lives, most of us will experience a panic attack in response to an actual danger or acute stress. But when panic attacks occur or recur for no reason and in the absence of danger or extreme stress, or when the fear of experiencing another attack is so strong that you change your behavior by avoiding certain places or people, you may have panic disorder.
Panic attacks and panic disorder are not the same thing. Panic disorder involves recurrent panic attacks along with constant fears about having future attacks and, often, avoiding situations that may trigger or remind someone of previous attacks. Not all panic attacks are caused by panic disorder; other conditions may trigger a panic attack. They might include:

“I was under a lot of stress — starting a new business, working 16-hour days, a close friend was ill and dying, and on top of all that, I was doing a super heavy workout regimen at the gym with a trainer," Sideman says. "So it was a lot of physical stress, emotional stress, and a lot of financial stresses." He says he also can see roots of anxiety in his childhood and teen years as well as in other family members.
When we’re anxious, the body produces a stress response. The stress response is designed to give us an extra ‘boost’ of awareness and energy when we think we could be in danger. The stress response causes a number of physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a perceived threat – to either fight or flee, which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response.’
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