People with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes or longer. These are called panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. A person may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack. It may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time, and many people with panic disorder worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack.
We all tend to avoid certain things or situations that make us uncomfortable or even fearful. But for someone with a phobia, certain places, events or objects create powerful reactions of strong, irrational fear. Most people with specific phobias have several things that can trigger those reactions; to avoid panic, they will work hard to avoid their triggers. Depending on the type and number of triggers, attempts to control fear can take over a person’s life.
Behavioral choices can also significantly impact risk, as excessive tobacco or caffeine use can increase anxiety, whereas regular exercise can decrease anxiety. Specific temperament and personality traits also may confer risk of having an anxiety disorder. With regards to temperament, shyness and behavioral inhibition in childhood can increase risk of developing an anxiety disorder later in life. With regard to personality traits, the Five Factor Model of Personality consists of five broad trait domains including Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. An individual higher on trait Neuroticism or low on Conscientiousness is at a higher risk for all anxiety disorders, and an individual low on trait Extraversion is at a higher risk of developing social phobia and agoraphobia. Some more narrow personality traits have also been found to relate to risk for anxiety, including anxiety sensitivity, a negative or hostile attributional style, and self-criticism. Personality disorders have also been shown to relate to increased risk for anxiety disorders.
To receive a diagnosis of panic disorder, the panic attacks must be unexpected and during the attack four or more of the above symptoms must occur. For panic attacks that are expected, meaning they might not be expected by the individual but are expected in relation to any phobia, anxiety or other mental health disorder, four or more symptoms must also occur.
Some people find that medication alone can be helpful in the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, while others are more likely to benefit from psychotherapy. Some find that the combination of psychotherapy and medication is the best course of action. Engaging in certain behaviors may also ease your anxiety and promote a healthier lifestyle. These include:
People with panic attacks often report a fear of dying or heart attack, flashing vision, faintness or nausea, numbness throughout the body, heavy breathing and hyperventilation, or loss of body control. Some people also suffer from tunnel vision, mostly due to blood flow leaving the head to more critical parts of the body in defense. These feelings may provoke a strong urge to escape or flee the place where the attack began (a consequence of the "fight-or-flight response", in which the hormone causing this response is released in significant amounts). This response floods the body with hormones, particularly epinephrine (adrenaline), which aid it in defending against harm.
Acupuncture is a treatment derived from traditional Chinese medicine. It consists of inserting very thin needles into the body in targeted areas. To date there is very little evidence that acupuncture can significantly treat generalized anxiety, although there are currently ongoing research trials for PTSD. One study did find that acupuncture can reduce pre-operative anxiety.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events. According to the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists the benefit of this therapy is that we can change the way we think to feel and act better even if the situation does not change. CBT focuses on determining the thought and behavior patterns responsible for sustaining or causing the panic attacks. CBT is a time-limited process (treatment goals—and the number of sessions expected to achieve them—are established at the start) that employs a variety of cognitive and behavioral techniques to affect change.
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".
Antidepressants can take time to work, so it’s important to give the medication a chance before reaching a conclusion about its effectiveness. If you begin taking antidepressants, do not stop taking them without the help of a doctor. When you and your doctor have decided it is time to stop the medication, the doctor will help you slowly and safely decrease your dose. Stopping them abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms.
People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).
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:
Adoration Aesthetic emotions Affection Agitation Agony Amusement Anger Anguish Annoyance Anxiety Apathy Arousal Attraction Awe Boredom Calmness Compassion Contempt Contentment Defeat Depression Desire Disappointment Disgust Ecstasy Embarrassment Vicarious Empathy Enthrallment Enthusiasm Envy Euphoria Excitement Fear Flow (psychology) Frustration Gratitude Grief Guilt Happiness Hatred Hiraeth Homesickness Hope Horror Hostility Humiliation Hygge Hysteria Infatuation Insecurity Insult Interest Irritation Isolation Jealousy Joy Limerence Loneliness Longing Love Lust Melancholy Mono no aware Neglect Nostalgia Panic Passion Pity Pleasure Pride hubris Rage Regret Rejection Remorse Resentment Sadness Saudade Schadenfreude Sehnsucht Sentimentality Shame Shock Shyness Sorrow Spite Stress Suffering Surprise Sympathy Tenseness Wonder Worry
“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.
NOTE: The Symptoms Listing section in the Recovery Support area of our website contains detailed information about most of the symptoms commonly associated with anxiety and panic. This information includes the sensations commonly experienced, whether it is an anxiety symptom or not, what causes them to occur, and what you can do to treat them. Much of this information isn’t found elsewhere.