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Frequently Asked Questions About Anxiety and Panic

  • What Are Anxiety/Panic Disorders?
  • Answer:

    It is a normal human emotion for people to experience anxiety or nervousness when faced with a problem or making an important decision. Anxiety disorders and panic disorders, however, are different. They can cause such physical and emotional distress that they interfere with a person's ability to lead a normal life.

    Anxiety disorders are quite common, affecting more than 18% of all Americans. For those affected, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be crippling.

    Panic disorder affects about 2.7% of the population and strikes without reason or warning. During a panic attack, the fear response is out of proportion for the situation, which often is nonthreatening. Over time, the person develops a constant fear of having another attack.

  • What Are the Different Types of Anxiety Disorders?
  • Answer:

    There are several recognized anxiety disorders, including:

    • Panic disorder: People with this condition have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. Other symptoms of a panic attack can include sweating, chest pain, palpitations (the sensation of pounding or irregular heartbeats), tingling in the hands or feet, dizziness, difficulty catching one’s breath, or a feeling of choking, which may make the person feel like he or she is having a heart attack or "going crazy". Panic disorder differs from an isolated panic attack in that the disorder involves at least a one month period of recurrent panic attacks along with fears of future attacks.
    • Social anxiety disorder: Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. The worry often centers on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule.
    • Generalized anxiety disorder : This disorder involves excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke the anxiety.
    • Specific phobias: A specific phobia is an intense fear of a specific object or situation, such as snakes, heights, or flying. The level of fear usually is inappropriate to the situation and may cause the person to avoid common, everyday situations.

     

  • What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
  • Answer:

    Anxiety disorders are real illnesses with real causes and are not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw, or poor upbringing. Ongoing scientific research is making it clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including changes in the brain, environmental stresses, and genetics.

    Studies have shown that severe or long-lasting stress can change the functioning of circuitry in the brain that regulates mood. Other studies have shown that people with certain anxiety disorders have changes in brain structures that control memory or mood. In addition, it has been shown that anxiety disorders run in families, which means that they can be inherited from one or both parents. Moreover, certain environmental factors -- such as a trauma or significant event -- may trigger an anxiety disorder in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the disorder.

    As with most illnesses, some people are more susceptible than others. Close relatives of people with panic disorder have a four to seven times increased risk of getting panic disorder.

  • What Are the Common Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders?
  • Answer:

    Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but general symptoms include:

    • Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness
    • Problems sleeping
    • Cold or sweaty hands
    • Shortness of breath
    • Heart palpitations
    • An inability to be still and calm
    • Dry mouth
    • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
    • Nausea
    • Muscle tension

    Symptoms of a panic attack, which often last about 10 minutes, include:

    • Difficulty breathing
    • Pounding heart or chest pain
    • Intense feeling of terror
    • Sensation of choking or smothering
    • Dizziness or feeling faint
    • Trembling or shaking
    • Sweating
    • Nausea or stomachache
    • Tingling or numbness in the fingers and toes
    • Chills or hot flashes
    • A fear that you are losing control or are about to die

  • How Is an Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?
  • Answer:

    If symptoms of an anxiety disorder are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by asking you questions about your medical history and performing a physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose anxiety disorders, the doctor may use various tests to look for a physical illness as the cause of the symptoms.

    If no physical illness is found, you may be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, mental health professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for an anxiety or panic disorder.

    The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on the patient's report of the intensity and duration of symptoms -- including any problems with daily functioning caused by the symptoms -- and the doctor's observation of the patient's attitude and behavior. The doctor then determines if the patient's symptoms and degree of dysfunction indicate a specific anxiety or panic disorder.

  • How Can I Prevent Anxiety/Stress Disorders?
  • Answer:

    Anxiety disorders cannot be prevented; however, there are some things you can do to control or lessen symptoms:

    • Stop or reduce your consumption of products that contain caffeine, such as coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate.
    • Ask your doctor or pharmacist before taking any over-the-counter drugs -- particularly cold remedies -- or herbal remedies. Many contain chemicals that can increase anxiety symptoms.
    • Seek counseling and support if you start to regularly feel anxious with no apparent cause.
    • Exercise daily and eat a healthy, balanced diet.
    • Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and breathing techniques, can be very helpful in managing symptoms of anxiety. Practices such as yoga and tai chi have also been shown to be very helpful in managing anxiety symptoms.

     

  • What Are the Most Effective Anxiety Disorder Treatments?
  • Answer:

    Fortunately, much progress has been made in the last two decades in the treatment of people with mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders. Although the exact treatment approach depends on the type of disorder, one or a combination of the following therapies may be used for most anxiety disorders:

    • Medication: Certain antidepressant drugs -- such as Paxil, Zoloft, or Celexa, as well as some older antidepressants like Tofranil -- and anti-anxiety medications -- such as Ativan, Xanax or Klonopin -- are used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Sometimes, heart medications (such as beta-blockers) are used to block the effects of adrenaline as a way to control performance anxiety. Each individual should discuss with his or her doctor whether medications are recommended for his or her particular symptoms, and if so, which ones would be most suitable.
    • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (a type of counseling) addresses the emotional response to mental illness. It is a process in which trained mental health professionals help people by talking through strategies for understanding and dealing with their disorder.
    • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: People suffering from anxiety disorders often participate in this type of psychotherapy in which the person learns to recognize and change thought patterns and behaviors that lead to anxious feelings. Therapy also aims to identify possibly triggers for panic attacks.

  • How Common Are Anxiety Disorders?
  • Answer:

    Anxiety disorders, in general, are the most common mental health disorders in the U.S. and affect millions of adult Americans, many of those being affected by panic disorder. Most of these disorders begin in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. They occur slightly more often in women than in men, and occur with equal frequency in whites, blacks, and Hispanics.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on July 08, 2014

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