Panic Attacks, Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders
Introduction to panic attacks
Imagine being a news anchor on national television and experiencing a panic attack while live on air in front of millions of viewers. That is exactly what happened to former ABC News journalist Dan Harris, who had a panic attack on air during a segment of Good Morning America. Dan Harris described his panic attack on air as the most embarrassing day of his life. He felt helpless and dealt firsthand with the fear that led to him stopping in the middle of his story.
Though most of us don’t experience panic attacks on live television, the feeling is similar during a non-televised panic attack. Your heart begins to beat faster, and your breath becomes more and more shallow to the point that you feel like your chest is caving in and you can’t speak normally. When the panic attack is over, there is often embarrassment, humiliation and sometimes confusion.
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions and can last for five to ten minutes. Panic attacks can be triggered by seemingly harmless things like driving in traffic or being out in public. There are also times when no cause or trigger can be identified. The symptoms are distressing at the time, but panic attacks themselves do not cause lasting physical harm.
Panic attacks are often described as “heart-pounding,” “difficulty breathing,” and “disconnected” from your surroundings.
Panic attacks are sudden and intense bursts of fear that can range from mild to severe. They can be caused by a variety of things, including stress or other disorders such as panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
People who have panic attacks often describe them as “heart-pounding,” “difficulty breathing,” and “disconnected” from your surroundings. A panic attack is “basically a wave of powerful, physical fear that feels overwhelming,” said David Carbonell, a clinical psychologist based in Chicago who specializes in treating anxiety and has written four self-help books. Symptoms might also include chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fear of dying or having a heart attack.
The symptoms of panic attacks are not dangerous and do not cause lasting physical harm, but they can be terrifying.
Panic attacks occur when your body experiences a sudden rush of adrenaline. This causes an intense feeling of shock or alarm that lasts for several minutes. Although panic attacks themselves are not dangerous and do not cause lasting physical harm, they’re still very frightening experiences for someone who has one, as they come on suddenly (usually without warning) and make you feel like you don’t have control over yourself.
It’s not always easy to know whether you are having a panic attack or if you have severe anxiety. It can be also difficult to know the causes of each and how to treat them.
An Anxiety Disorder is different than a panic attack.
How can you tell if you have panic attacks or another form of anxiety? To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it must cause significant distress or impairment in your quality of life. You may also have other mental health issues such as depression or bipolar disorder. Panic attacks are generally not considered a disorder on their own but can be symptoms of an anxiety disorder (panic disorder).
Anxiety is quite different from a panic attack since it affects your day-to-day life and can be very difficult to manage without treatment. According to Anxiety & Depression Association of America, or ADAA, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults (19% of the population) age 18 and older every year. The most common types of anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder.
Many people who experience severe anxiety have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are many causes and contributing factors of severe anxiety—some may be helped temporarily with medication, while others often require therapies such as EMDR, CBT, or other mental health interventions.
Anxiety symptoms can be debilitating. Chronic worries or fears are common among people who have severe anxiety.
Anxiety symptoms can be severe and debilitating. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may find that your symptoms cause numerous problems in everyday life. For example:
- You avoid situations that make you anxious (flying or driving in unfamiliar areas)
- Your ability to work or go to school is severely limited by your anxiety (you’re unable to complete tasks, or do well on tests)
- You have trouble sleeping or concentrating because of anxiety
You may also feel like your worries are out of control. A chronic worry is a persistent, long-lasting worry that causes significant distress or impairment. It’s not a passing thought, but rather an ongoing concern. This can lead to more intense symptoms over time if left untreated.
Severe anxiety affects your day-to-day life and can be very difficult to manage without treatment.
Severe anxiety can also cause problems with daily life that can make it hard to function normally in social settings, school, or work environments. Severe anxiety can be difficult to manage without treatment. Symptoms of severe anxiety may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dizziness or fainting spells
- Chest pains, heart palpitations, or rapid heartbeat
- Cold sweats and/or chills
- Intense fear or dread about something bad happening (anticipatory anxiety)
- Feeling irritable and easily frustrated (catastrophizing)
- Avoidance of certain places, things, or situations due to the fear of having another panic attack
Generalized anxiety disorder is excessive anxiety and worry lasting for at least six months.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by an individual that has persistent and excessive worry about everyday things that do not warrant concern and behave as if the worries are real. Generalized anxiety disorder is excessive anxiety and worry lasting for at least six months and typically causes problems in your relationships with others or disrupts your daily life. People that have generalized anxiety disorder might be worried about money, health, family, work, or are constantly worried about the future. Those struggling with generalized anxiety may also experience physical symptoms such as muscle tension or headaches.
Panic disorder includes having unexpected panic attacks with no obvious trigger.
Panic Disorder is characterized by recurrent unexpected panic attacks. People with panic attacks feel intense fear or terror and think they’re going to have a heart attack or die during a panic attack. Symptoms may include increased heart rate, heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, trembling and shortness of breath. Unexpected panic attacks have no obvious trigger at the time of occurrence, appearing to occur out of the blue, rather than in context of a phobia.
Agoraphobia involves fear of being trapped in one place, fear of being away from home alone or with strangers.
Agoraphobia involves fear of being trapped in one place, fear of being away from home alone or with strangers. Those with agoraphobia often have a fear of being in places where escape may be difficult such as crowded places. Someone with agoraphobia may remain housebound for long periods as they fear they can’t leave home safely (even though this is not true). Agoraphobics often experience panic attacks related to being in public places or traveling alone. The main symptoms of agoraphobia include:
- Fear of leaving the house.
- Fear that anything could lead to an embarrassing or catastrophic event while away from home.
- Fear that you’ll have a panic attack while away from home
Social anxiety involves fear of doing things in front of people or fear of looking bad in front of others.
A social anxiety is when an individual is fearful or anxious of social interactions and situations that could involve the possibility of being scrutinized. This includes situations such as meeting new people, performing in front of others, or eating and drinking in front others. The thought is of being embarrassed, humiliated, rejected, or negatively evaluated.
People with a specific phobia have an intense fear that’s out of proportion with the danger they face.
Specific phobia is an anxiety disorder in which you feel intense fear when faced with a specific object or situation. You may have a severe reaction to something like snakes, flying, or large crowds.
People with specific phobias have an intense fear that’s out of proportion with the danger they face. They usually avoid being around the thing they’re afraid of and can get very anxious just thinking about it.
Some people have more than one specific phobia — for example, claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders).
People can have multiple types of anxiety disorders
People can have multiple types of anxiety disorders, and one person can have more than one type at the same time. For example, you might have a severe case of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), but also experience occasional panic attacks caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Causes of anxiety disorders can include abnormal brain activity, genetics, life experiences, or traumatic events.
Severe anxiety can be caused by abnormal brain activity (brain over arousal or brain under arousal), that leads to uncontrollable and unwanted anxiety. Other possible causes are genetics, life experiences, or a traumatic event like a car accident or a natural disaster. Past experiences or events can trigger long-term fear responses in your body’s fight-or flight system which controls the release of adrenalin into the bloodstream when we sense danger.
Treatment for anxiety disorders include psychotherapy, medication, and neurofeedback therapy.
There are many types of treatment for anxiety, including psychotherapy, medication, and neurofeedback therapy.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can be an affective option to help treat anxiety disorders. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), are ranked highly in effectiveness in the treatment of many anxiety disorders.
Medication can be prescribed to help manage the symptoms of anxiety disorders but typically does not resolve the underlying root issue of the anxiety. Benzodiazepines are the most common type of medication used to help anxiety disorders. However, it is important to be aware of any side effects of medication, as the use of medication to treat anxiety disorders can lead to adverse side effects including dizziness, loss of appetite, headaches, insomnia, diarrhea, or constipation.
Neurofeedback, or EEG biofeedback, can be extremely effective for those that experience frequent panic attacks or suffer from an anxiety disorder. This non-invasive treatment uses sensors to read brainwaves and then provides feedback about the quality of the person’s brainwave patterns. By teaching the brain how to regulate itself, neurofeedback can help people to become calm and more relaxed throughout the day.
Emerald Coast NeuroFeedback, with offices in Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach, Fl, addresses the three primary sources of anxiety (life experiences, brain over arousal and brain under arousal) in different ways. Sensory motor rhythm neurotherapy training can slow a brain down from over arousal, making everyday stress much easier to manage. The alpha-theta protocol was also designed to address an over aroused brain and triggers from life experiences that stimulate the original event(s). The beta-biofeedback helps teach the brain to speed up which helps calm an under aroused brain. A thorough evaluation, completed by a licensed therapist, helps determine which types and combinations of brain training are right for your symptoms.
Panic Attacks and Anxiety Disorders in summary
If you are experiencing panic attacks or severe anxiety, the differences may not be very clear to you. Panic attacks, which are short sudden burst of fear, can be triggered by simple things like driving in a car or being out in public. Some panic attacks have no triggers and just happen unexpectedly. Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, cause significant distress or impairment in your quality of life and can be very difficult to manage without treatment. The most common types of anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder. Severe anxiety can be caused by abnormal brain activity, genetics, and life experiences.
Treatment options for panic attacks and anxiety disorders include psychotherapy, medication, and neurofeedback therapy.
If you have questions about your own mental health or want more information on how neurofeedback may help you with panic attacks or anxiety, please contact Emerald Coast NeuroFeedback at (850) 977-1287.