The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. They rarely last more than an hour, with most ending within 20 to 30 minutes. Panic attacks can happen anywhere and at any time. You may have one while you’re in a store shopping, walking down the street, driving in your car, or even sitting on the couch at home.
Once you have done all you can, just let it go. Like everything in life, this is easier said than done, but with practice, you can get pretty adept at letting go of excessive levels of stress and anxiety. You can do this by focusing on something else, reminding yourself of the solutions you have worked on, or trying some stress management strategies that can help you feel more centered and at peace, such as prayer or meditation, journaling about your feelings, or listening to music. Getting regular exercise has been found to be especially helpful in combating the physical effects of anxiety and stress.
Anyone who’s ever had a panic attack can tell you what a rollercoaster-of-a-ride it can be. It comes on suddenly, gripping its victims in extreme fear and heart-thumping, breathtaking physical distress. Minutes later, it’s over. When panic attacks occur repeatedly and people’s lives are gripped by fear of having the next panic episode, they may be diagnosed with panic disorder.
People who have panic attacks typically spend a lot of time worrying about having more attacks and often make seemingly unreasonable lifestyle changes in an attempt to avoid circumstances that will trigger future attacks. They may avoid situations that, they feel, have precipitated previous episodes or environments where they would not be able to escape easily if another attack should occur.
Although there are not specific causes for panic attacks in adults, teens, or children, like most other emotional symptoms, panic is understood to be the result of a combination of biological vulnerabilities, ways of thinking, and environmental factors like social stressors. According to one theory of panic disorder, the body's normal "alarm system," also described as the body's fight or flight system, the set of mental and physical mechanisms that allows a person to respond to a threat, tends to be triggered when there is no danger. Scientists don't know specifically why this happens or why some people are more susceptible to the problem than others. Panic disorder has been found to run in families, and this may mean that inheritance (genetics) plays a role in determining who will develop the condition. However, many people who have no family history of the disorder develop it. Studies differ as to whether drugs like marijuana or nutritional deficiencies like zinc or magnesium deficiencies may also be risk factors for developing panic disorder.
That’s not strictly correct, but it is funny because it’s true in a sense. Being told to calm down in the right way, or telling ourselves, can be effective. But that “right way” is maddeningly elusive. Most people feel like being “persuaded” out of anxiety is a tall order; it’s hard to outsmart it, or suppress it by force of will. We don’t feel good at calming down. Here are some of the typical ways that people reflexively try to calm down (AKA “cope with anxiety”):
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.
Thinking may be what gets us anxious in the first place, and it may be hard to fight fire with fire, hard to use calming thoughts to subdue or replace worried thoughts. Or, worse, worried thoughts may over time become embodied, so entrenched in our behaviour and biology that they are no longer just thoughts — and fresh attempts to think less worried thoughts may have little impact, especially at first.
The typical course of panic disorder begins in adolescence and peaks in early to mid-twenties, with symptoms rarely present in children under the age of 14 or in older adults over the age of 64 (Kessler et al., 2012). Caregivers can look for symptoms of panic attacks in adolescents, followed by notable changes in their behavior (e.g., avoiding experiencing strong physical sensations), to help potentially identify the onset of panic disorder. Panic disorder is most likely to develop between the ages of 20-24 years and although females are more likely to have panic disorder, there are no significant sex differences in how the disorder presents (McLean et al., 2011).
A poor diet can also contribute to stress or anxiety — for example, low levels of vitamin B12. Performance anxiety is related to specific situations, like taking a test or making a presentation in public. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a stress disorder that develops after a traumatic event like war, physical or sexual assault, or a natural disaster.
It's important to note that everyone feels anxiety to some degree regularly throughout their life - fear and anxiety are adaptive and helpful emotions that can function to help us notice danger or threat, keep us safe, and help us adapt to the environment. Anxiety disorders represent states when fear or anxiety becomes severe or extreme, to the extent that it causes an individual significant distress, or impairs their ability to function in important facets of life such as work, school, or relationships. It is also important that risk factors don't at all imply that anxiety is anyone's fault; anxiety disorders are a very common difficulty that people experience. In this section, we will review risk factors for anxiety disorders. There are many potential risk factors for anxiety disorders, and most people likely experience multiple different combinations of risk factors, such as neurobiological factors, genetic markers, environmental factors, and life experiences. However, we do not yet fully understand what causes some people to have anxiety disorders.
In deeper level psychoanalytic approaches, in particular object relations theory, panic attacks are frequently associated with splitting (psychology), paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, and paranoid anxiety. They are often found comorbid with borderline personality disorder and child sexual abuse. Paranoid anxiety may reach the level of a persecutory anxiety state.
Often, a combination of psychotherapy and medications produces good results in the treatment of panic disorder. Improvement is usually noticed in about two to three months. Thus, appropriate treatment for panic disorder can prevent panic attacks or at least substantially reduce their severity and frequency, bringing significant relief to 70%-90% of people with the illness. More than 18% of people who are assessed but not treated for this condition tend to relapse in less than two years. As these statistics indicate, access to appropriate mental health care is key to a positive prognosis for people who suffer from panic attacks. Therefore, it is imperative to alleviate the well documented economic and racial disparities that exist in having and using access to care. Combating other social disparities, like educational, employment, housing, and criminal justice, is also seen as being important to improving the prognosis for recovering from panic attacks and other health problems.
Antidepressants are widely used to treat anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder. The most commonly prescribed medications are from the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class. They are generally effective and have few side-effects, although they do not provide immediate relief. More
Before SSRIs and SSNRIs became available, medications from the group known as the tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) were often used to address panic disorder. Although TCAs have been found to be equally effective in treating panic attacks, SSRIs and SSNRIs have been proven to be safer and better tolerated. Therefore TCAs are used much less often than they were previously.
Panic attacks are often confusing for the sufferer. They are usually sudden and are accompanied by extremely intense physical sensations, leaving one to believe they may have a serious medical condition. Because the physical symptoms associated with a panic attack are similar to certain serious medical conditions, it is important to rule out any medical causes.
Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some family members have it while others don’t. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain, as well as biological processes, play a key role in fear and anxiety. Some researchers think that people with panic disorder misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats. By learning more about how the brain and body functions in people with panic disorder, scientists may be able to create better treatments. Researchers are also looking for ways in which stress and environmental factors may play a role.
Many medical conditions can cause anxiety. This includes conditions that affect the ability to breathe, like COPD and asthma, and the difficulty in breathing that often occurs near death. Conditions that cause abdominal pain or chest pain can cause anxiety and may in some cases be a somatization of anxiety; the same is true for some sexual dysfunctions. Conditions that affect the face or the skin can cause social anxiety especially among adolescents, and developmental disabilities often lead to social anxiety for children as well. Life-threatening conditions like cancer also cause anxiety.
To break the cycle and prevent anxiety, it’s important to help kids balance the “I cans” with the “I can’ts.” They need to experience the joy of success more often. One way to do this is by setting a “competence anchor”—helping your child connect the feeling of something he’s successful at with a task he’s struggling with. (Learn more about how to set a competence anchor.)
For people who may be wondering how to avoid panic attacks using treatment without prescribed medication, natural remedies may be an option. While herbal supplements that contain kava have been found to be helpful for some people with mild to moderate panic disorder, the research data is still considered to be too limited for many physicians to recommend treatment with other natural remedies like valerian or passionflower. Also, care should be taken when taking any dietary supplements, since supplements are not regulated in terms of quality, content, or effectiveness.
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Panic disorder affects 2-3% of people every year in the United States and Europe, with varying rates depending on race and ethnicity. On average, Native American Indian populations experience panic disorder at higher rates than non-Latino white Americans. In contrast, African Americans, Latinos, Caribbean Blacks, and Asian Americans all experience the disorder at lower rates than non-Latino white Americans. In addition, it has been well established than females are twice as likely to be diagnosed with panic disorder than males (Asnaani, Gutner, Hinton, & Hofmann, 2009; McLean, Asnaani, Litz, & Hofmann, 2011). A number of factors (e.g., biological influences, temperament, exposure to stressors and trauma, cognitive factors, and environmental factors) have been identified as possibly influencing sex differences in rates of panic disorder (McLean & Anderson, 2009). However, no one theory has been determined so the underlying reason for sex differences in rates of panic disorder remains unknown.
Anxiety is a person’s specific reaction to stress; its origin is internal. Anxiety is typically characterized by a “persistent feeling of apprehension or dread” in situations that are not actually threatening. Unlike stress, anxiety persists even after a concern has passed. In more severe cases, anxiety can escalate into an anxiety disorder, the most common mental health issue in the U.S. Anxiety disorders are classified in a variety of ways: generalized anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.
Good CBT probably gives you a better chance than winging it on your own, but it’s still not an easy road. And its most common weakness in practice seems to be an unfortunate overemphasis on the thinking part — using conscious thought as leverage. Which I cynically assume is an issue simply because that’s what is easiest to do in a therapy session.19
Some well-chosen, specific calming exercises can be done in two minutes in the office washroom, right after that incredibly irritating meeting with your boss. They can be done quickly in the middle of the night when you have insomnia and don’t have the will to do anything challenging. You don’t have to get up for an hour and do yoga, or run up and down the apartment building stairs.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviors that are sustaining or triggering your panic attacks and helps you look at your fears in a more realistic light. For example, if you had a panic attack while driving, what is the worst thing that would really happen? While you might have to pull over to the side of the road, you are not likely to crash your car or have a heart attack. Once you learn that nothing truly disastrous is going to happen, the experience of panic becomes less terrifying.
Carbonell says that understanding the physiology of fainting and reminding yourself of it is important. People faint when their blood pressure drops. A anxiety attack can make you feel like you’re going to faint, but you won’t because your blood pressure doesn't drop during an attack. Remind yourself out loud of truths like these to counter your fears.
This is the kind of thing I mean when I cautiously counsel people to do their best to solve problems in their lives as a very basic defense against both anxiety and pain. I would never want to minimize the seriousness of mood disorders, but sometimes what looks like a mood disorder really is “just” a disheartening, stressful situation — and many crappy situations can be changed, sooner or later. Not that it’s easy. In fact, it’s often dazzlingly difficult in the short term. Consider the tragic example of domestic violence: surrounded by one asshole in particular.
Social risk factors for anxiety include a history of trauma (e.g., physical, sexual or emotional abuse or assault), early life experiences and parenting factors (e.g., rejection, lack of warmth, high hostility, harsh discipline, high parental negative affect, anxious childrearing, modelling of dysfunctional and drug-abusing behaviour, discouragement of emotions, poor socialization, poor attachment, and child abuse and neglect), cultural factors (e.g., stoic families/cultures, persecuted minorities including the disabled), and socioeconomics (e.g., uneducated, unemployed, impoverished although developed countries have higher rates of anxiety disorders than developing countries).
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.
It is not clear what causes panic disorder. In many people who have the biological vulnerability to panic attacks, they may develop in association with major life changes (such as getting married, having a child, starting a first job, etc.) and major lifestyle stressors. There is also some evidence that suggests that the tendency to develop panic disorder may run in families. People who suffer from panic disorder are also more likely than others to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, or to abuse alcohol or drugs.
Great questions. Unfortunately, there is usually no clear cut answer – and like many mental health disorders – it is likely caused by a combination of genetic, behavioral, and developmental factors. Anatomically speaking, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is most closely related to a disruption in the functional connectivity of the amygdala – the “emotional control center” of the brain – and how it processes feelings of fear and anxiety. Genetics also play a role in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. If you have a family member that also suffers from this disorder, your chances of suffering from it are increased, especially in the presence of a life stressor. Interestingly, long-term substance abuse also increases your chances of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as the use of benzodiazepines can worsen your anxiety levels, as can excessive alcohol use. Tobacco use and caffeine are also both associated with increased levels of anxiety.
For more information, please visit Mental Health Medications Health Topic webpage. Please note that any information on this website regarding medications is provided for educational purposes only and may be outdated. Diagnosis and treatment decisions should be made in consultation with your doctor. Information about medications changes frequently. Please visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for the latest information on warnings, patient medication guides, or newly approved medications.