Many of us may know what it feels like to be nervous before a party, or when meeting new people or making an important phone call. Those with social anxiety disorder have very intense versions of those fears — intense fears of being judged by others that cause them to avoid those kinds of situations. For most people, fears of social situations usually subside once the intimidating event has been faced. But in social anxiety disorder, these feelings are persistent and usually last for at least six months.
In contrast, the term anxiety attack is not a specifier outlined in the DSM-5. Rather, anxiety is used to describe a core feature of multiple different anxiety disorders. The culmination of symptoms that result from being in a state of anxiety—such as restlessness, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and difficulty concentrating—may feel like an “attack,” but are generally less intense than those experienced at the height of a panic attack.
Medication can be used to temporarily control or reduce some of the symptoms of panic disorder. However, it doesn’t treat or resolve the problem. Medication can be useful in severe cases, but it should not be the only treatment pursued. Medication is most effective when combined with other treatments, such as therapy and lifestyle changes, that address the underlying causes of panic disorder.
The avoidance, anticipation of, or distress of the phobic object/situation must cause significant distress or interferes with the individual's daily life, occupational, academic, or social functioning to meet diagnosis. The symptoms cannot be better accounted for by another mental disorder or be caused by substances, medications, or medical illness.
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.
Exercises to replace negative thoughts with positive ones: Make a list of the negative thoughts that might be cycling as a result of anxiety, and write down another list next to it containing positive, believable thoughts to replace them. Creating a mental image of successfully facing and conquering a specific fear can also provide benefits if anxiety symptoms relate to a specific cause, such as in a phobia.
Heredity, other biological factors, stressful life events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily reactions are all believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. Some research suggests panic attacks occur when a “suffocation alarm mechanism” in the brain is activated, falsely reporting that death is imminent. The exact cause or causes of panic disorder are unknown and are the subject of intense scientific investigation.
Neural circuitry involving the amygdala (which regulates emotions like anxiety and fear, stimulating the HPA Axis and sympathetic nervous system) and hippocampus (which is implicated in emotional memory along with the amygdala) is thought to underlie anxiety. People who have anxiety tend to show high activity in response to emotional stimuli in the amygdala. Some writers believe that excessive anxiety can lead to an overpotentiation of the limbic system (which includes the amygdala and nucleus accumbens), giving increased future anxiety, but this does not appear to have been proven.
Although anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knots in your stomach, what differentiates a panic attack from other anxiety symptoms is the intensity and duration of the symptoms. Panic attacks typically reach their peak level of intensity in 10 minutes or less and then begin to subside. Due to the intensity of the symptoms and their tendency to mimic those of heart disease, thyroid problems, breathing disorders, and other illnesses, people with panic disorder often make many visits to emergency rooms or doctors' offices, convinced they have a life-threatening issue.
The condition of steady, pervasive anxiety is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Yet there are numerous anxiety-related disorders. One is panic disorder—severe episodes of anxiety that occur in response to specific triggers. Another is obsessive-compulsive disorder, marked by persistent intrusive thoughts or compulsions to carry out specific behaviors, such as hand-washing. Post-traumatic stress disorder may develop after exposure to a terrifying event in which severe physical harm occurred or was threatened. Anxiety so frequently co-occurs with depression that the two are thought to be twin faces of one disorder. Like depression, anxiety strikes twice as many adult females as males.
Try your best not to avoid or push away feelings of panic. Instead, breathe into the experience and practice your acceptance (as described above). Avoiding situations or bodily sensations associated with panic attacks may seem helpful in the short-term because it helps to immediately make our anxiety decrease. But in the long-term, it is not helpful because it teaches our brains that those physical sensations were a "true alarm" or something to really be afraid of. Instead, if we approach the sensations and situations that make us anxious, perhaps a little bit at a time, we can rewire our brains over time to learn that these things are not so scary after all. By repeating this approach process over and over, you can begin to see that these physical sensations you are having are not so scary and this can help reduce panic symptoms in the future or at least make them much more manageable in the moment. Remember the saying, "avoidance is anxiety's best friend" because the more we avoid, the more anxious we tend to feel. So, try out approaching the things that make you anxious with an "I can do this!" attitude.
But some think that nature isn’t as much of an influence as nurture. People theorize that women tend to be socialized in a way that gives them permission to openly discuss emotion. So women may feel more comfortable admitting to feelings than men, who tend to be socialized to keep their feelings to themselves and are less likely to confess to emotional problems. Women may therefore get diagnosed with anxiety disorders more often than men. (9)
Anxiety disorders reflect disorders that share a general feature of excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. anticipation of future threat) and demonstrate behavioral and functional disturbances as a result. Panic attacks are a feature that can occur in the context of many anxiety disorders and reflect a type of fear response.
Panic disorder is a diagnosis given to people who experience recurrent unexpected panic attacks— that is, the attack appears to occur from out of the blue. The term recurrent refers to the fact that the individual has had more than one unexpected panic attack. In contrast, expected panic attacks occur when there is an obvious cue or trigger, such as a specific phobia or generalized anxiety disorder. In the U.S., roughly 50% of people with panic disorder experience both unexpected and expected panic attacks.
Medications for panic disorder, such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines, can reduce the intensity of panic attacks and other anxiety-related symptoms. Psychotherapy can assist in helping you deal with difficult emotions and develop healthy coping techniques. Regardless of the options someone chooses, it's important to get help for panic and anxiety. The sooner a diagnosis has been made and treatment begins, the quicker a person can expect to cope with symptoms and manage life with panic disorder.
Please note that it is not a good idea to attempt to diagnose or label a friend or family member. Only a mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety disorder, as many disorders have overlapping features, and can go together with other types of mental health difficulties. However, if you notice signs of anxiety, or just feel that something is not quite right with someone that you care about, it's a good idea to reach out to ask the person how they are feeling. You could start with something neutral and supportive like, "It seems like you haven't been quite yourself lately. Is there something going on that you want to talk about?"
A form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been found by several studies to be the most effective treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder. During CBT, you will work with a therapist on relaxation training, restructuring your thoughts and behaviors, mindfulness, exposure treatment, and stress reduction. Many people that suffer from panic attacks start to notice a reduction within weeks, and symptoms often decrease significantly or go away completely within several months.
While everyone experiences brief episodes of intense anxiety from time to time, and a great many people experience one or two anxiety attacks over the course of their lifetime, anxiety attack disorder occurs when these attacks become frequent or persistent, begin interfering with or restricting normal lifestyle, or when the individual becomes afraid of them. Once established, anxiety attack disorder can be very debilitating.