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.
It’s normal to feel anxious when facing a challenging situation, such as a job interview, a tough exam, or a first date. But if your worries and fears are preventing you from living your life the way you’d like to, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. There are many different types of anxiety disorders—as well as many effective treatments and self-help strategies. Once you understand your anxiety disorder, there are steps you can take to reduce your symptoms and regain control of your life.
Many factors are linked to the development of panic attacks and panic disorder. In terms of personality, those who are more prone to anxiety, and more likely to believe that anxiety is harmful, are more likely to experience panic attacks. Stressors and interpersonal issues, such as a death in the family or adverse life events, tend to be seen in the months preceding a panic attack.
Don’t panic. That’s a phrase we hear countless times in a day. We hear it in conversation, on TV, in the movies. We say it to ourselves. Why? Because when we panic– experience an intense sensation of fear or anxiety in response to an actual danger—we are more likely to lose control and react to potentially unsafe even life-threatening events in a frantic or irrational way. Panic inhibits our ability to reason clearly or logically. Think about the explosion of fear, the borderline hysteria you felt the day you momentarily lost sight of your six-year-old in the mall. Or the time your car skidded violently on a rain-soaked road. Even before you registered what was happening, your body released adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones that signal danger. Those hormones cause physical reactions: heart pounding, shallow breathing, sweating and shivering, shaking, and other unpleasant physical sensations.

"The fight-or-flight system is hardwired for us humans to manage dangerous situations, and those of us with anxiety have an activated fight-or-flight response when the trigger is not really dangerous," says Beth Salcedo, MD, the medical director of The Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders and board president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Because involuntary panic attacks can be caused by other medical conditions, such as mitral valve prolapse, thyroid problems, hyperglycemia, side effects from certain types of medications, recreational drug use (such as marijuana), stimulants, etc., it’s best to discuss your panic attacks and symptoms with your doctor to rule out any medical cause.
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Having experienced one unanticipated panic attack is usually a sign that a person can expect to have more of them in the future. Persistent and unexpected panic attacks are the hallmark feature of a panic disorder. People diagnosed with panic disorder may also be subject to having nocturnal panic attacks, a type of unexpected panic attack that occurs when a person is sound asleep and wakes them up with panic symptoms.
If you are greatly afraid, however, such as being terrified that there is a burglar in your home that is about to harm you, the body produces a high degree stress response. We generally experience high degree stress responses as being anxiety attacks: where the changes are so profound they get our full attention. The greater the degree of anxiety and stress response, the more changes the body experiences.
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