The feeling of panic and anxiety are natural responses of the body in the presence of dangers and under stressful circumstances. Most of the time, the level of anxiety differs from one person to another while a panic attack is usually manifested as a consequence of the feeling of anxiety. While this can be considered as a normal behavioral response, when they are manifest with extreme responses not in proportion to the current condition, panic and anxiety become a major psychological disturbance.
What is anxiety and panic attack?
An anxiety attack is a normal body response to stressful situations. It is in fact a natural response of the body when it senses danger. Anxiety always makes a person alert and focused and serves as a motivating factor to take action. It only becomes a problem once the anxiety attack symptoms become quite overwhelming and persistent resulting in the interference of the person's ability to perform normal functions and affect relationships with others. Awareness of the common anxiety attack symptoms is a helpful indicator to gauge whether your anxiety is one with minor or major severity that requires proper diagnosis and treatment.
Panic disorder mainly takes a form of an anxiety which is characterized by a sudden panic attack that may be recurrent, resulting in behavioral changes that may last at least a month. This condition can become an anticipatory disorder where the person has an ongoing worry and predicaments of having another attack. Panic disorder is a treatable condition even without any known cure. The condition typically occurs during adulthood between the ages of 25 to 30 years old affecting women twice as much as men. Some sources would say the condition may occur as early as 15 to 19 years of age.
When panic and anxiety occur
One striking characteristic of panic attacks experienced by a person is that the attack is very sudden and unexpected. It occurs unprovoked and can often become disabling. The person with panic disorder may often develop phobias or irrational fear of situations that preceded the panic attack and begin to avoid them. This pattern of avoidance then eventually becomes a different level of anxiety where the mere idea of doing the things that preceded their first panic attack usually triggers a future panic attack with a resulting condition of agoraphobia. Panic attacks may continue for months or even years, which duration is highly dependable on when and how treatment is sought. If left untreated the extent of anxiety and panic attacks can become distressing to the person to the point that they make an effort of concealing their condition because of the fear of the stigma of mental illness.
Individuals with severe and repeated panic attacks can become disabled by the condition. Extreme fear of experiencing the attack again, which is often termed agoraphobia usually leads to phobias and the individual no longer enjoys doing their usual activities in the fear that they will have another panic attack. Hence the person's activities become restricted.
Symptoms of panic and anxiety disorder
There are innumerable signs of anxiety attack that may involve emotional, psychological and physiological reactions. Fear and anxiousness are the most common signs of an anxiety attack. Early and minor anxiety attack symptoms may range from the feelings of apprehension, restlessness, fear, irritability, and tension. One may also experience physiological response of the body, such as pounding heart, sweating, muscle tension, frequent urination, diarrhea, insomnia and fatigue.
These signs of anxiety are common in minor panic attacks but there are major anxiety attack symptoms that are considered disproportionate responses than a particular situation warrants. This result to uncontrolled anxiety, restlessness, depression and extreme fatigue. The anxiety attack symptoms become persistent that it affects the person's ability to cope with stress that impairs their activities of daily living.
It is also possible that panic attacks may be continuous or may occur in waves of one panic attack after another within an hour period. However, one should note that if the symptoms of attack persist for more than an hour it is likely you might not have a panic attack disorder and should immediately seek medical treatment.
The following are the common symptoms seen in panic disorder:
- Pounding heart
- Chest pain
- Difficulty in breathing or dyspnea
- Intense fear and terror
- Dizziness or fainting
- Choking sensation
- Chills or hot flushes
- Numbness or tingling in the finger and toes
- The fear of losing control or about to die
- Rapid heartbeat
- Feeling of being detached from reality
- Persistent fear of having another attack
There are also specific symptoms that are highly suggestive of Panic Disorder which should be at least one of the attacks followed by a month or more of one or more of the following symptoms:
- Persistent concern about having additional attacks
- Significant change in behavior related to the attack
- Worry about the implications of the attack and its consequence, such as having a heart attack, going crazy and losing control
Causative factors in panic and anxiety
Panic and anxiety attacks are usually triggered by different factors. It is often believed that there is no single cause for a panic and anxiety attack and the following are contributing causes of the disorder:
- Genetic factor plays an important role in the development of panic and anxiety disorder. Many studies supported the fact that the condition does run in the family. However, there are also cases of panic disorder that occurred in individuals without any family history of the condition.
- Brain abnormality also accounts as one of the possibility to cause an anxiety attack to a person. It is believed that the body's normal alarm system has been unnecessarily triggered resulting in the activation of mental and physical reaction of the body to threat even when there is no danger.
- Panic attack can also be triggered by major physical illness such as hyperthyroidism, hypoglycemia, labyrinthitis, mitral valve prolapse, pheaochromocytoma that increases one's susceptibility of feeling anxiety.
- Life's stresses such as major life transitions and stressful events
- Substance abuse and alcohol
- Comorbidity with other psychological disorders such as bipolar disorder and post traumatic disorder
- Certain medications such as SSRIs
- Fear can also stimulate the body's fight and flight response which causes an automatic, rapid and protective response without the need for conscious thought.
- Dysfunctional part of the brain called amygdala can cause unnecessary stimulation of the body's fear response.
- Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa
- Stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine
- Chemicals such as carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke
Treatment for panic and anxiety
Treatment for the disorder usually involves drug intervention and cognitive therapy, relaxation techniques and other forms like psychodynamic and the like.
Commonly prescribed medication are antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines). Antidepressants can reduce the panic severity and help eliminate panic attacks. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and Tricyclic antidepressants are found to be effective in reducing the severity of the attacks. Anti-anxiety drugs helps to prevent the occurrence of panic attacks but it may become a habit forming practice.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is found to be the most effective treatment for panic and anxiety disorder. The objective of the treatment approach is directed towards the behavior and thinking patterns of the person which trigger the panic attack. The treatment approach is to help one look at their fears with a more realistic light which reduced the anticipatory anxiety that the person feels thereby allowing them to learn how to relax and deal with every situation in a more positive light with less terrifying thoughts.
Relaxation techniques can help a person with panic disorder calm themselves while learning to be in control to reduce the severity of the anxiety attack. Muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises and yoga are among the many relaxation techniques to calm your senses.
The patient and the therapist work together in uncovering the underlying emotional conflicts that may have caused the condition. The patient learns to overcome the problems by being able to recognize it with a better understanding and recognizing the common stresses that contribute to the panic attack.
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