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Anxiety Disorder and Panic Attacks What They Are and Treatment

Overview of Anxiety and Panic Disorders

Anxiety disorder (also referred to as anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder) and panic disorder are mental health issues in which experiences that are “normal” under certain circumstances (such as during a period of stress or when being threatened) occur with unhealthy frequency and intensity.

Marked by frequent, extended and intense periods of worry, nervousness (anxiety), fear or dread (panic), anxiety and panic disorders are potentially debilitating conditions that fall under the general term “mood disorders.” Other common mood disorders are depression, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Though anxiety and panic disorders can range from disruptive to debilitating, many individuals who have struggled with these conditions have been able to overcome the problems with professional treatment.

Causes of Anxiety and Panic Disorders

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Medical researchers have yet to identify a primary cause of either anxiety disorders or panic disorders. However, certain conditions put people at increased risk for developing either an anxiety disorder or a panic disorder:

  • Gender — About two-thirds of panic disorder sufferers are women. Though rates of generalized anxiety disorder are more even, this condition is slightly more likely to affect women than men.
  • Genetics — Some research has indicated an increased risk among people with a family history of panic attacks, and similar research has hinted at a similar result for those with a family history of anxiety disorders.
  • Nutrition — Some studies have suggested than deficiencies in magnesium or zinc can make a person more prone to experiencing a panic attack.
  • Social/cultural influences — Individuals who are socially or culturally precluded from addressing and processing emotions in a healthy manner may be more likely to suffer from a panic disorder or an anxiety disorder. On an experiential level, people who have suffered a significant trauma or been abused may be placed at increased risk for an anxiety disorder.

Symptoms of Anxiety and Panic Disorders

Symptoms of an anxiety disorder are similar to what almost all people experience when worried or under stress:

  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Sleep problems
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Irritability and restlessness

Panic disorders manifest via severe physical and emotional symptoms such as the following:

  • Racing heartbeat (sometimes accompanied by chest pain)
  • Nausea and/or abdominal cramping
  • Fear of imminent death or a sensation of impending doom
  • Dizziness, trembling, shaking and/or tingling in one’s extremities
  • Shortness of breath and/or sensation of starting to choke

It is important to note that while almost everyone experiences these symptoms when exposed to certain threats or stresses, individual s who have anxiety or panic disorders experience these symptoms often, and in the absence of any negative external stimulus.

Treatment for Anxiety and Panic Disorders

A common first step in the treatment of an anxiety disorder or a panic disorder is a thorough medical evaluation to rule out any physical causes.

Depending upon the nature and severity of an anxiety or panic disorder — and taking into account the presence of any co-occurring disorder or addiction — treatment for these types of mood disorders may involve outpatient therapy, partial hospitalization, residential care, medications and/or participation in an ongoing support group.

The following are among the range of techniques that have proven effective when dealing with anxiety or panic patients:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Physician-supervised medication management
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • DBT Skills training
  • Individual, group and family therapy sessions
  • Monitored fitness and nutritional education

Anti-depression medications such as serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have proven to be efficacious in the treatment of individuals with anxiety disorders or panic disorders.