Panic Disorder occurs when people suffer from sudden, unexpected and uncontrollable panic attacks. These panic attacks aren’t caused by any obvious fear (e.g., having a panic attack because you’re afraid of heights and on top of a ladder or if you’re afraid of flying and about to board a plane). People with Panic Disorder also experience anticipatory anxiety (worrying about having another attack or the consequences of having another attack) and avoid going to places where a panic attack might happen.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, work in the brain via a chemical messenger called serotonin. SSRIs commonly prescribed for panic disorder include Fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), escitalopram (Lexapro), paroxetine (Paxil), and citalopram (Celexa). SSRIs are also used to treat panic disorder when it occurs in combination with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, or depression. SSRI's tend to have fewer side effects than other antidepressants. Patients may initially experience nausea, drowsiness, diarrhea, or sexual side effects when they first take SSRIs, but over time, symptoms subside. An adjustment in dosage or a switch to another SSRI may also correct the problem. Clients should discuss all side effects or concerns with their doctor so that any needed changes in medication can be made.
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.
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Research upon adolescents who as infants had been highly apprehensive, vigilant, and fearful finds that their nucleus accumbens is more sensitive than that in other people when deciding to make an action that determined whether they received a reward. This suggests a link between circuits responsible for fear and also reward in anxious people. As researchers note, "a sense of 'responsibility', or self-agency, in a context of uncertainty (probabilistic outcomes) drives the neural system underlying appetitive motivation (i.e., nucleus accumbens) more strongly in temperamentally inhibited than noninhibited adolescents".
Prevention is more effective than treatment for panic attacks. Prevention involves stress management methods such as meditation and mindfulness to reduce your stress so that it doesn’t accumulate and eventually erupt into a panic attack. Prevention is not about stopping a panic attack just before it happens. The best you can do just before a panic attack is manage it.
Although the exact causes of panic attacks and panic disorder are unclear, the tendency to have panic attacks runs in families. There also appears to be a connection with major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married, or having a baby. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also trigger panic attacks.
Anxiety disorders can often be addressed successfully with a combination of therapy and medication. For therapy, patients may undergo psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, in which they learn to change how they respond to situations that induce anxiety. For medications, clinicians may, for limited periods of time, prescribe antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or tricyclics, tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines; they may also prescribe beta blockers for specific events. Different strategies can also help people who experience feelings of anxiety but the severity of which falls below the clinical threshold for diagnosis. Habits such as exercising, sleeping well, and limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol consumed can prove helpful. Strategies such as taking deep breaths, acknowledging limits to fully controlling situations, pushing back against anxious or irrational thoughts, and observing the circumstances that tend to produce anxiety are proven to reduce anxiety by helping people feel better prepared in the future.
Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, activities such as yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation strengthen the body’s relaxation response—the opposite of the stress response involved in anxiety and panic. And not only do these relaxation practices promote relaxation, but they also increase feelings of joy and equanimity.
If you believe you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, your doctor will perform a variety of physical exams as well as mental health checks. You might first go to your doctor complaining of constant headaches and trouble sleeping. After he or she rules out any underlying medical conditions that are causing your physical symptoms, s/he may refer you to a mental health specialist for further diagnosis. Your mental health specialist will ask you a series of psychological questions to get a better understanding of your condition. To be clinically diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, your doctor and/or mental health provider will assess the length of time you have been suffering from excessive worry and anxiety, your difficulty in controlling your anxiety, how your anxiety interferes with your daily life, and if you are experiencing fatigue, restlessness, irritability, muscle tension, sleep problems, and difficulty concentrating.
An anxiety attack can be described as a sudden attack of fear, terror, or feelings of impending doom that strike without warning and for no apparent reason. This strong sensation or feeling can also be accompanied by a number of other symptoms, including pounding heart, rapid heart rate, sweating, lightheadedness, nausea, hot or cold flashes, chest pain, hands and feet may feel numb, tingly skin sensations, burning skin sensations, irrational thoughts, fear of losing control, and a number of other symptoms. (While other symptoms often do accompany anxiety attacks, they don’t necessarily have to.)