Phobic avoidance – You begin to avoid certain situations or environments. This avoidance may be based on the belief that the situation you’re avoiding caused a previous panic attack. Or you may avoid places where escape would be difficult or help would be unavailable if you had a panic attack. Taken to its extreme, phobic avoidance becomes agoraphobia.
“Anxiety attack” is not a formal, clinical term, but one that is used by many people to describe all sorts of things, from feeling worried about an upcoming event to intense feelings of terror or fear that would meet the diagnostic criteria for a panic attack. In order to understand what someone means by “anxiety attack,” it is necessary to consider the context in which the symptoms occur.
There has been recent interest in using psychoactive substances in conjunction with psychotherapy; the two that have received increased attention have been cannabis (marijuana) and methylenedioxymethamfetamine (MDMA, known as ecstasy or molly). These drugs are somewhat controversial, given that they also have psychoactive, i.e. "feeling high" effects. However, with increasing legalization of marijuana it is important to address whether these substances could be used to alleviate clinical symptoms of anxiety. While there have been only a few randomized clinical trials for these drugs, certain forms of cannabis have demonstrated positive effects on anxiety. Specifically, cannabidiol, a component of cannabis has been effective for Social Anxiety Disoder, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has helped PTSD patients. However, the plant form of cannabis has not shown great efficacy and has potential to worsen symptoms, so should be used with caution and only under supervision of a provider. MDMA has shown some positive effects for PTSD, but should only be used as an adjunct to psychotherapy, again under clinical care.
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.
The causes of anxiety attacks are not well understood. Some traumatic life events can set off anxiety attacks if the person is prone to depression or anxiety disorders. Also, medical conditions and some medications may trigger anxiety attacks. Many believe anxiety attacks run in families with a genetic predisposition. In other words, if your mom and her sister had anxiety attacks, it’s likely you will, too.
Biological causes may include obsessive compulsive disorder, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder, hypoglycemia, hyperthyroidism, Wilson's disease, mitral valve prolapse, pheochromocytoma, and inner ear disturbances (labyrinthitis). Dysregulation of the norepinephrine system in the locus ceruleus, an area of the brain stem, has been linked to panic attacks.
Meditation may also be helpful in the treatment of panic disorders. There was a meta-analysis of the comorbidity of panic disorders and agoraphobia. It used exposure therapy to treat the patients over a period. Hundreds of patients were used in these studies and they all met the DSM-IV criteria for both of these disorders. A result was that thirty-two percent of patients had a panic episode after treatment. They concluded that the use of exposure therapy has lasting efficacy for a client who is living with a panic disorder and agoraphobia.
There are many types of psychotherapies used to treat anxiety. Unlike counseling, psychotherapy is more long-term and targets a broader range of issues such as patterns of behavior. The patient's particular anxiety diagnosis and personal preference guides what therapies would be best suited to treat them. The ultimate goal with any type of psychotherapy, is to help the patient regulate their emotions, manage stress, understand patterns in behavior that affect their interpersonal relationships. Evidenced-based therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) are some of the most effective at treating anxiety.
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.
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. 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. In particular, the amygdala has been suggested to have a critical role. 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. There is evidence that having an anxiety disorder increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Those affected also have a reduction in heart rate variability.
When we experience an involuntary high degree stress response, the sensations can be so profound that we think we are having a medical emergency, which anxious personalities can react to with more fear. And when we become more afraid, the body is going to produce another stress response, which causes more changes, which we can react to with more fear, and so on.