DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.
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.
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.
While conducting research for this article, we encountered more than a dozen mental health professionals who mistakenly believed the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” were synonymous. They were licensed professionals, but none of them had a specialty in anxiety. Because “anxiety attack” is not a clinical term, they assumed it was a synonym for “panic attack.” This caused them to use the terms interchangeably.
Panic attacks are generally brief, lasting less than 10 minutes, although some of the symptoms may persist for a longer time. People who have had one panic attack are at greater risk for having subsequent panic attacks than those who have never experienced a panic attack. When the attacks occur repeatedly, and there is worry about having more episodes, a person is considered to have a condition known as panic disorder.
Cognitive distortions such as overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, mind reading, emotional reasoning, binocular trick, and mental filter can result in anxiety. For example, an overgeneralized belief that something bad "always" happens may lead someone to have excessive fears of even minimally risky situations and to avoid benign social situations due to anticipatory anxiety of embarrassment. In addition, those who have high anxiety can also create future stressful life events. Together, these findings suggest that anxious thoughts can lead to anticipatory anxiety as well stressful events, which in turn cause more anxiety. Such unhealthy thoughts can be targets for successful treatment with cognitive therapy.
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:
Many patients first report symptoms to their primary care physician. Primary care physicians (PCPs) will administer a thorough physical exam to rule out hormonal imbalances, side effects of medications, and certain illnesses. If the symptoms are not due to other conditions, the physician may diagnose the patient with anxiety and therefore refer the patient to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Physicians practice in hospitals, clinics and private practices.
Depression is a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested in life in general for more than two weeks and when the feelings interfere with daily activities. Major depression is a treatable illness that affects the way a person thinks, feels, behaves, and functions. At any point in time, 3 to 5 percent of people suffer from major depression; the lifetime risk is about 17 percent.
The symptoms of a panic attack may cause the person to feel that their body is failing. The symptoms can be understood as follows. First, there is frequently the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the fight-or-flight response when the body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating. Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), causing compensatory metabolic acidosis activating chemosensing mechanisms which translate this pH shift into autonomic and respiratory responses. The person him/herself may overlook the hyperventilation, having become preoccupied with the associated somatic symptoms.
Medications — most often antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs — can also be used to help treat panic disorder. Your doctor may initially prescribe you an anti-anxiety drug, such as Xanax (alprazolam), and then add an antidepressant, such as Effexor XR (venlafaxine). After a month or sooner, your doctor may stop the Xanax and have you remain on the antidepressant.
"Anxiety" is a general term that describes a variety of experiences, including nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worry, that are common in several mental health disorders. While most of us have anxiety at some time, this is completely different from an anxiety attack or anxiety disorder. Normal feelings of nervousness, worry, and fear often have a known trigger (a major exam, money issues, or seeing a bug). But when you're having a full blown panic attack or anxiety attack, the symptoms — chest pain, flushing skin, racing heart, and difficulty breathing — can make you feel as though you're going to faint, lose your mind, or die. The reality is, you won’t. The key to surviving is to learn all you can about anxiety attacks and practice the skills you need to get through them.