Anxiety / StressMental HealthPsychology / Psychiatry

What to know about panic attacks and panic disorder

A panic attack arises due to heightened anxiety. Anyone may have a panic attack but it’s also a classic panic disorder symptom. It can lead to quick heartbeat, fast breathing, sweating, shaking, and other symptoms.

A panic attack may occur in people who don’t have an anxiety disorder if an event causes anxiety.

A panic attack and panic disorder may affect any ethnic background but it is more common among women than among men.

Symptoms

Panic can lead to lightheadedness.
Panic can lead to lightheadedness.

A panic attack is often the result of a direct trigger or incident, but with no apparent cause they may start unexpectedly and spontaneously too. It is assumed that they derive from an evolutionary response to risk.

It is said that experiencing a panic attack is one of the most intensely stressful, disturbing and unpleasant events in a person’s life.

The American Psychological Association (APA) states that an attack can last just 15 seconds, but symptoms can persist for approximately 30 minutes or longer, and sometimes hours.

A panic attack includes at least four of the following signs, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says:

  • Chest pain and discomfort
  • Chills or feeling unusually hot
  • Derealization, or feeling detached
  • Dizziness and feeling lightheaded
  • Experiencing a strong, sudden fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or feeling as if a person is “going crazy”
  • Feelings of choking
  • Heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, or rapid heart rate
  • Nausea and stomach upset
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sweating
  • Trouble breathing, feeling as if a person is smothering

Panic attacks can also be associated with agoraphobia, a fear of places the person finds dangerous or difficult to escape from. People who have had a panic attack frequently say they felt trapped after.

The signs of a panic attack may often mimic other medical conditions. Examples include lung disorders, cardiac attacks, or thyroid problems.

A person might often seek emergency medical attention for a heart attack, yet anxiety is the true cause. Panic attacks are highly treatable, and don’t mean an individual is a mentally ill or a hypochondriac.

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is an underlying medical condition, and symptoms include panic attacks. An estimated 6 million Americans have a panic disorder according to the American Anxiety and Depression Association.

Women are more likely to develop the disorder, and it most frequently happens when a person in early adulthood is between the ages of 18 and 25.

The disorder occurs when a person has had several panic attacks and is still living in fear of another panic attack. Although anyone in their lifetime will experience a panic attack, people with a panic disorder experience repeated attacks.

Fear of another attack they may encounter may cause them to withdraw from friends and family. They can be afraid to go outside or to places in public. A panic disorder can and should be treated severely affecting the quality of life of a person.

Causes

Experts suggest anxiety and panic are a necessary part of our survival, to a certain degree. However, when rates get so high that normal thought processes are disrupted, a person naturally gets scared.

The amygdala, a part of the brain, is triggered when the brain receives a burst of nerve signals designed to warn of imminent danger. The amygdala controlls the anxious response of a person.

The amygdala of certain people responds with fear when there is no immediate threat, which makes it much more likely they will experience high anxiety and panic attacks.

They generate adrenaline, also called epinephrine, when a person is given the signal to respond with anxiety.

The adrenal glands produce Adrenaline. Some call adrenaline the hormone “fright or run.” A release of adrenaline into the bloodstream can increase heartbeat, cause sweating, churn the stomach and cause rapid respiration. These are all characteristics of a panic attack.

If there is no immediate danger and adrenaline loads the system, the hormone will not be used for running away. Panic attack can be triggered by buildup.

A number of risk factors that increase a person’s chances of having panic attacks and panic disorder.

Genetics can play a role. When a person has a near family member with panic disorder, such as a parent or sibling, they may be more likely to have a panic attack.

Experiencing significant stress or life change can cause increased anxiety and panic attacks, in addition to family history.

Examples involve a recent death of a loved one, or marriage breakup. Having a history of physical or sexual violence may also increase the probability of a person developing a panic disorder.

Examples involve a recent loss of a loved one, or marriage breakup. Having a history of physical or sexual abuse may also increase the probability of a person developing a panic disorder.

Habits such as smoking or drinking large amounts of caffeine are also risk factors related to panic disorder. Do you use drugs?

Alongside conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks may also occur.

However, often there doesn’t seem to be any specific event or family history to cause an attack. They can happen without warning.

Diagnosis

The APA publishes the Mental disorder Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5). The manual outlines guidelines for helping a doctor identify mental health conditions, such as depression or panic disorder, and seeks to establish a countrywide standard for diagnosis.

Panic attack in lady
Frequent and sudden panic can be a sign of a panic attack.

The criteria for diagnosing a panic disorder include:

  • Experiencing frequent and unexpected panic attacks
  • Having at least one month of ongoing fear of having a panic attack and its accompanying symptoms, such as losing control. A person may significantly change his or her behavior for fear of having a panic attack in public
  • Having panic attacks that are not attributable to taking certain medicines or having another mental health disorder, such as social phobia

A person who has these symptoms is likely to have a panic disorder.

Treatment

Medications and psychotherapy sessions are the most common therapies for panic disorder.

Psychotherapy, known as “talk therapy,” includes talking to a licensed mental health professional to identify possible panic attack causes in order to resolve fear.

Medications can also help to correct neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain that may lead to extreme anxiety.

Examples include:

  • Benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam (Xanax) or clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), or sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), such as hydrochloride (Effexor XR)

Sometimes one drug will work but not another for one person with anxiety disorder. A person should always be concerned about possible benefits and side effects.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a doctor can also prescribe medicines known as beta blockers, which prevent a person’s heart rate from going too high and leading to more anxiety.

Prevention

In addition to these panic disorder medication therapies, certain improvements in lifestyle will help a person make reductions in the incidence of panic attacks and panic disorder.

Examples include:

  • Avoiding substances known to contribute to panic disorders, including caffeine, smoking, or using recreational drugs
  • Getting enough sleep every night
  • Joining a support group for those who experience regular panic attacks
  • Taking steps to reduce stress in one’s life, such as practicing yoga, engaging in deep breathing, or engaging in regular physical activity

Complications

If left untreated, panic disorder can start affecting several aspects of a person’s life.

Complications can include:

  • Abusing alcohol or other substances as a way to “escape” the concerns of daily life
  • Developing phobias, such as agoraphobia
  • Experiencing financial problems
  • Increased risk of suicidal thoughts
  • Refraining from social situations
  • Requiring frequent medical care due to health concerns

The search for panic disorder medical care will help to avoid these complications.Seeking medical treatment for panic disorder can help to prevent these complications.

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