Anxiety and Panic Attacks: Causes and Solutions Explained
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in the world. Anxiety is a relative of fear, and both occur in response to a threat. Fear causes the body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which increase your heart rate, and make you more alert and aware of your environment. These hormones are part of the fight-or-flight response that helps you to move quickly so you don’t get eaten by wild animals. At its best, fear is a survival mechanism that’s meant to protect you.
Yet most of the time we’re not in situations where there’s a legitimate threat to our survival. Oftentimes people get scared and anxious while they’re at home alone, at work, or in a social setting, where there’s no actual danger in sight. When this is the case, it means your nervous system is dysregulated (activated and misfiring), and you might be experiencing anxiety or panic.
While the terms anxiety, anxiety attack, and panic attack are often used interchangeably, they are quite different and it's important to know the difference.
When you experience anxiety, it usually comes on slowly and it might range from feeling mildly activated to moderately triggered. Anxiety is often connected to the stress of worrying or thinking about something in the future. Here is a list of the most common mental and physical symptoms of anxiety:
Racing or circular thoughts (this includes worrying, negative or catastrophic thinking, black and white thinking, rumination, obsession, paranoia).
Shortness of breath, hyperventilating, or feeling like your breath is stuck somewhere in the body. During a panic attack, you might feel like you’re going to die.
Tightness in the throat, chest, or stomach area.
Disassociating or disconnecting from yourself and your surroundings or leaving your body.
Feelings of dread.
Heart palpitations, excessive sweating, or feeling too hot or cold for no reason.
Difficulty falling or staying asleep.
Psychosomatic symptoms like tension in the muscles, back pain, stiffness in the joints, nausea, clenching of the jaw, stomach pain, digestive issues, and dizziness.
Compulsive behaviors such as cleaning, chain-smoking, excessive shopping, binge eating, or using substances.
When symptoms of anxiety are severe, intense, overwhelming, and difficult to control, you might be experiencing an anxiety attack. You might feel like your thoughts are spiraling and are nearly impossible to manage. An anxiety attack is an intense form of anxiety, but it is milder than a panic attack, doesn’t come on as quickly, and is mostly connected to stress, overthinking, or worrying about something in the future that may or may not happen.
Panic tends to come on abruptly, and quickly sends your nervous system into a fight, flight, or freeze response. During a panic attack, you’ll feel afraid or threatened by something that’s happening in the moment. You might feel like you’re going crazy or about to die. Your heart will beat quickly and it’ll be difficult to breathe.
Genetics and Trauma
If anxiety or panic runs in your family, you might have a genetic predisposition, even if it skips a generation. The field of epigenetics has revealed that trauma, stress, and environment can activate or inhibit the expression of certain genes.
Unresolved personal and intergenerational trauma stays active in the limbic system, the brain center that deals with memory, mood, pleasure, and emotions like anger and excitement. This unprocessed trauma can be triggered at any time and set off an alarm in your brain, causing anxiety or panic.
In this case, is important to work through personal and inherited trauma so you can create new neural pathways in the brain.
Read more: learn about intergenerational trauma and healing.
It is essential to assess your lifestyle to determine whether there is something in your routine or life that is causing anxiety. For example, stress, codependent relationships, major life transitions, and medical conditions can cause or contribute to feelings of anxiety. Being isolated or leading a sedentary lifestyle can also amplify symptoms of anxiety. For some, substances including caffeine and alcohol can trigger anxiety. And foods that cause inflammation in the gut can send an inflammatory signal to your brain, activating anxiety.
Explore more: learn about the relationship between the gut and brain, and how to improve your vagal tone.
Suppressed emotions, such as anger or sadness, can contribute to anxiety and panic, especially if these feelings are tied to trauma. Many people don't know how to tolerate the discomfort of feeling difficult emotions without numbing out or acting out. It can be overwhelming to face the past without getting flooded with painful feelings and thoughts. These suppressed emotions build up and can trigger anxiety and panic at unexpected times. Suppressed emotions can also lead to fits of uncontrolled anger and rage.
Learn more about how to deal with anger.