Article Reviewed by Medical Review Board
The term anxiety disorders encompasses a group of related conditions, each having unique symptoms. They are a form of mental illness that can be managed and potentially eliminated with proper care and attention from healthcare professionals, loved ones, and, most importantly, the person suffering from anxiety.
Anxiety is part of the normal human experience. One could speculate that it served human survival during evolution by enhancing preparedness and alertness. However, anxiety is considered abnormal or a disorder when the reactions are out of proportion to the objective danger a person is facing, when they cause distress or physical problems, or when they spiral into a self-reinforcing cycle. An anxiety attack, also called a panic attack, is not a healthy reaction to normal stressors one encounters every day, and may be a symptom of a deeper, underlying disorder.
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social phobia or social anxiety disorder
People with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes or longer. This is called a panic or anxiety attack. These attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. A person may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack. It may feel like having a heart attack. Breathing may feel constricted. A panic attack can occur at any time, and many people with the disorder worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack.
People with panic disorder may become discouraged and feel ashamed because they cannot carry out normal routines like going to school or work, going to the grocery store, or driving.
Panic disorder often begins in the late teens or early adulthood. More women than men have panic disorder, but not everyone who experiences a panic attack will develop the disorder.
How Do You Treat an Anxiety or Panic Attack?
The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends a number of techniques and therapies to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a treatment that focuses on reactions to events, not on changing the events themselves. Working under the direction of a therapist, CBT offers many constructive strategies to reduce the beliefs and behaviors that lead to panic and anxiety symptoms.
Exposure response prevention is a treatment that works best with phobias and social anxiety. Its aim is to help a person develop a more constructive response to a specific fear. The goal is for a person to “expose” themselves to that which they fear in an attempt to experience less anxiety over time and develop effective coping tools.
Many people with anxiety disorders are prescribed anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants, which can be helpful in managing an anxiety or panic disorder. However, these types of medications can come with serious side effects and may not treat the underlying issue.
Many people find relief with complementary health approaches such as self-management strategies, stress and relaxation techniques, yoga, deep breathing, and exercise.
Under the direction of an experienced healthcare provider, supplemental vitamins and minerals, such as those containing omega-3 fatty acids and folate, as well as medicinal herbs, foods, and probiotics, may help some people cope with anxiety attacks.
The Harvard Medical School recommends six relaxation techniques for those suffering from anxiety or panic attacks. They include:
- Focusing on your breathing
- Focusing on groups of muscles and allowing them to loosen
- Mental imagery using online apps and recordings to “walk you” toward a mind-body connection
- Mindfulness meditation, with a focus on the here and now
- Practicing the ancient arts, such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong
- Repeating a short prayer or phrase from a prayer while practicing breath focus
What Are the Signs of an Anxiety Attack?
People typically experience one or more of the following symptoms of an anxiety or panic attack:
- Feeling apprehension or dread
- Feeling tense or jumpy
- Restlessness or irritability
- Anticipating the worst and being watchful for signs of danger
- Pounding or racing heart, shortness of breath, or high blood pressure
- Chest pain
- Sweating, tremors, and twitches
- Headaches, fatigue, and insomnia
- Upset stomach, frequent urination, or diarrhea
People with anxiety or panic often retreat from social life because they suffer from other symptoms of anxiety, which may include:
- Feeling helpless or fearing a lack of control, leading to feelings of being stuck or trapped.
- Feeling as if they don’t fit in because no one understands them.
- Being hypersensitive to criticism and evaluation.
- Being depressed over perceived failures.
- Dreading upcoming events and social functions.
- Suffering from uncertainty, hesitation, or lack of confidence.
- Worrying they will be the center of attention, which they absolutely don’t want.
- Feeling as if they are “under a microscope” and will be judged by how they look, what they say, and how they react to social cues.
- Feeling tired and suffering from the of being “on alert” all the time.
What Causes an Anxiety Attack?
Some people suffering from anxiety disorders and panic attacks may be experiencing a hormonal imbalance. When a person is stressed out or has been triggered by a thought, experience, or social event, the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, flood the body with cortisol.
Uncomfortable symptoms, both emotional or psychiatric, are often triggered by external events or circumstances such as anxiety, despair, panic, discouragement and even damaging self-talk in some cases. Recognizing these triggers and responding to them appropriately can help prevent a downward spiral and negative feelings that may lead to the physical manifestation of anxiety-related symptoms.
There are a number of triggers for an anxiety or panic attack, including:
- An underlying health issue such as a chronic illness or a hormonal imbalance
- Medications, including birth control pills, cough medicine, and weight loss pills
- Skipping meals
- Negative thinking
- Financial worries
- Interpersonal or professional conflict, arguments, and disagreements
- Daily stressors like traffic jams or missing a train
- Personal triggers related to negative experiences in the past
You might be surprised to learn that some of your daily habits and lifestyle choices could be causing you to experience anxiety or panic, including:
- Being dehydrated
- Drinking alcohol
- Texting at bedtime
- Breathing unevenly
- Ignoring an unconscious cue related to a negative experience in your past
Hormones and Anxiety Attacks
If you’re under constant stress and the alarm button stays on all the time because of anxiety, it can derail and damage your body’s most important functions.
Prolonged anxiety or panic means your body is being flooded with too much cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone. You might have heard of the “flight or fight” response, an instinctive reaction from the days of being hunters and gatherers. While that impulse served humans well to either fight or avoid dangers, the cortisol that floods the body during those events constricts the blood vessels, quickens the heart, and tenses the muscles for better preparedness against threats.
In addition to cortisol’s role in the “flight or fight” responses, it also plays an important role in:
- Regulating how the body burns carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Keeping inflammation down
- Regulating blood pressure
- Increasing blood sugar
- Controlling the sleep/wake cycle
- Boosting energy to handle stress and restoring balance afterward
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that too much cortisol can throw the body completely out of balance, resulting in a number of health problems, including:
- Anxiety and depression
- Mood swings
- Heart disease
- Memory and concentration problems
- Problems with digestion
- Trouble sleeping
- Weight gain
What if My Friend or Family Member Suffers From Anxiety Attacks?
People with loved ones suffering from anxiety disorders and panic attack symptoms can be supportive by understanding that it’s “not all in their head,” and that if not addressed, these disorders can lead to social isolation and serious health problems.
A person suffering from anxiety or panic attacks need understanding and compassion, not judgment or condemnation. Be there for that person, but don’t push them to talk because that can increase anxiety. You might also be able to help them develop coping strategies or help them through social situations that might cause anxiety.
Should You See a Medical Professional?
If you’re suffering from anxiety or panic attacks on a regular basis, it’s important to speak with a medical professional. Not only can the anxiety or panic and its symptoms be affecting your physical health, anxiety could be a sign all by itself that you have a medical illness, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or dyspepsia. A 2007 New Zealand study of subjects with gastroenteritis (inflammation of the digestive tract) found an association between high anxiety levels and the development of IBS following a bowel infection.
People with inflammation of the airways and loss of elasticity due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) also have high rates of anxiety (which is to be expected if you find it hard to breathe).
Anxiety disorders and panic attacks have also been linked to the development of heart disease and to coronary events in people who already have heart disease. In the Nurses’ Health Study, women with high levels of anxiety were more likely to have a heart attack, and 31 percent more likely to die from one, than women with lower anxiety levels.
Two studies concluded that among both men and women with established heart disease, those suffering from an anxiety disorder were twice as likely to have a heart attack as those with no history of anxiety disorders.
If you have tried medication and self-management strategies to little or no effect, a bioidentical hormone specialist within the BodyLogicMD network can look for any hormonal imbalances that may be contributing to the problem. There are many factors that can cause a hormonal imbalance, but you don’t have to suffer. A bioidentical hormone specialist can tailor a plan specific to your unique condition while keeping both your physical and mental health as a top priority rather than just trying to eliminate symptoms, no matter the cost.
You can rest assured that a BodyLogicMD-affiliated physician will listen to your individual concerns and take them seriously while designing a treatment plan that is customized for your ultimate health and wellbeing.