Panic and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Learning Objectives

  • Explain panic disorder and panic attacks
  • Describe the symptoms and prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder

Panic Disorder

Imagine that you are at the mall one day with your friends and—suddenly and inexplicably—you begin sweating and trembling, your heart starts pounding, you have trouble breathing, and you start to feel dizzy and nauseous. This episode lasts for 10 minutes and is terrifying because you start to think that you are going to die. When you visit your doctor the following morning and describe what happened, she tells you that you have experienced a panic attack (Figure 1). If you experience another one of these episodes two weeks later and worry for a month or more that similar episodes will occur in the future, it is likely that you have developed panic disorder.

A diagram shows an outline of a person’s upper body and internal organs including the brain, the lungs, the stomach, and the heart. The diagram shows the symptoms of a panic attack and the areas of the body these symptoms may express themselves. The brain is labeled, “Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded.” The heart is labeled, “Chest pain, palpitations and/or accelerated heart rate.” The lungs are labeled, “Shortness of breath.” The stomach is labeled, “Nausea or abdominal distress.”

Figure 1. Some of the physical manifestations of a panic attack are shown. People may also experience sweating, trembling, feelings of faintness, or a fear of losing control, among other symptoms.

People with panic disorder experience recurrent (more than one) and unexpected panic attacks, along with at least one month of persistent concern about additional panic attacks, worry over the consequences of the attacks, or self-defeating changes in behavior related to the attacks (e.g., avoidance of exercise or unfamiliar situations) (APA, 2013). As is the case with other anxiety disorders, the panic attacks cannot result from the physiological effects of drugs and other substances, a medical condition, or another mental disorder. A panic attack is defined as a period of extreme fear or discomfort that develops abruptly and reaches a peak within 10 minutes. Its symptoms include accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling, choking sensations, hot flashes or chills, dizziness or lightheadedness, fears of losing control or going crazy, and fears of dying (APA, 2013). Sometimes panic attacks are expected, occurring in response to specific environmental triggers (such as being in a tunnel); other times, these episodes are unexpected and emerge randomly (such as when relaxing). According to the DSM-5, the person must experience unexpected panic attacks to qualify for a diagnosis of panic disorder.

Experiencing a panic attack is often terrifying. Rather than recognizing the symptoms of a panic attack merely as signs of intense anxiety, individuals with panic disorder often misinterpret them as a sign that something is intensely wrong internally (thinking, for example, that the pounding heart represents an impending heart attack). Panic attacks can occasionally precipitate trips to the emergency room because several symptoms of panic attacks are, in fact, similar to those associated with heart problems (e.g., palpitations, racing pulse, and a pounding sensation in the chest) (Root, 2000). Unsurprisingly, those with panic disorder fear future attacks and may become preoccupied with modifying their behavior in an effort to avoid future panic attacks. For this reason, panic disorder is often characterized as fear of fear (Goldstein & Chambless, 1978).

Panic attacks themselves are not mental disorders. Indeed, around 23% of Americans experience isolated panic attacks in their lives without meeting the criteria for panic disorder (Kessler et al., 2006), indicating that panic attacks are fairly common. Panic disorder is, of course, much less common, afflicting 4.7% of Americans during their lifetime (Kessler et al., 2005). Many people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia, which is marked by fear and avoidance of situations in which escape might be difficult or help might not be available if one were to develop symptoms of a panic attack. People with panic disorder often experience a comorbid disorder, such as other anxiety disorders or major depressive disorder (APA, 2013).

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Researchers are not entirely sure what causes panic disorder. Children are at a higher risk of developing panic disorder if their parents have the disorder (Biederman et al., 2001), and family and twins studies indicate that the heritability of panic disorder is around 43% (Hettema, Neale, & Kendler, 2001). The exact genes and gene functions involved in this disorder, however, are not well-understood (APA, 2013). Neurobiological theories of panic disorder suggest that a region of the brain called the locus coeruleus may play a role in this disorder. Located in the brainstem, the locus coeruleus is the brain’s major source of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. Activation of the locus coeruleus is associated with anxiety and fear, and research with nonhuman primates has shown that stimulating the locus coeruleus either electrically or through drugs produces panic-like symptoms (Charney et al., 1990). Such findings have led to the theory that panic disorder may be caused by abnormal norepinephrine activity in the locus coeruleus (Bremner, Krystal, Southwick, & Charney, 1996).

Conditioning theories of panic disorder propose that panic attacks are classical conditioning responses to subtle bodily sensations resembling those normally occurring when one is anxious or frightened (Bouton, Mineka, & Barlow, 2001). For example, consider a child who has asthma. An acute asthma attack produces sensations, such as shortness of breath, coughing, and chest tightness, that typically elicit fear and anxiety. Later, when the child experiences subtle symptoms that resemble the frightening symptoms of earlier asthma attacks (such as shortness of breath after climbing stairs), he may become anxious, fearful, and then experience a panic attack. In this situation, the subtle symptoms would represent a conditioned stimulus, and the panic attack would be a conditioned response. The finding that panic disorder is nearly three times as frequent among people with asthma as it is among people without asthma (Weiser, 2007) supports the possibility that panic disorder has the potential to develop through classical conditioning.

Cognitive factors may play an integral part in panic disorder. Generally, cognitive theories (Clark, 1996) argue that those with panic disorder are prone to interpret ordinary bodily sensations catastrophically, and these fearful interpretations set the stage for panic attacks. For example, a person might detect bodily changes that are routinely triggered by innocuous events such getting up from a seated position (dizziness), exercising (increased heart rate, shortness of breath), or drinking a large cup of coffee (increased heart rate, trembling). The individual interprets these subtle bodily changes catastrophically (“Maybe I’m having a heart attack!”). Such interpretations create fear and anxiety, which trigger additional physical symptoms; subsequently, the person experiences a panic attack. Support of this contention rests with findings that people with more severe catastrophic thoughts about sensations have more frequent and severe panic attacks, and among those with panic disorder, reducing catastrophic cognitions about their sensations is as effective as medication in reducing panic attacks (Good & Hinton, 2009).

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Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Alex was always worried about many things. He worried that his children would drown when they played at the beach. Each time he left the house, he worried that an electrical short circuit would start a fire in his home. He worried that his wife would lose her job at the prestigious law firm. He worried that his daughter’s minor staph infection could turn into a massive life-threatening condition. These and other worries constantly weighed heavily on Alex’s mind, so much so that they made it difficult for him to make decisions and often left him feeling tense, irritable, and worn out. One night, Alex’s wife was to drive their son home from a soccer game. However, his wife stayed after the game and talked with some of the other parents, resulting in her arriving home 45 minutes late. Alex had tried to call his cell phone three or four times, but he could not get through because the soccer field did not have a signal. Extremely worried, Alex eventually called the police, convinced that his wife and son had not arrived home because they had been in a terrible car accident.

Alex suffers from generalized anxiety disorder: a relatively continuous state of excessive, uncontrollable, and pointless worry and apprehension. People with generalized anxiety disorder often worry about routine, everyday things, even though their concerns are unjustified (Figure 2). For example, an individual may worry about her health and finances, the health of family members, the safety of her children, or minor matters (e.g., being late for an appointment) without having any legitimate reason for doing so (APA, 2013). A diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder requires that the diffuse worrying and apprehension characteristic of this disorder—what Sigmund Freud referred to as free-floating anxiety—is not part of another disorder, occurs more days than not for at least six months, and is accompanied by any three of the following symptoms: restlessness, difficulty concentrating, being easily fatigued, muscle tension, irritability, and sleep difficulties.

AA photograph shows a woman biting her fingernails.

Figure 2. Worry is a defining feature of generalized anxiety disorder. (credit: Freddie Peña)

About 5.7% of the U.S. population will develop symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder during their lifetime (Kessler et al., 2005), and females are 2 times as likely as males to experience the disorder (APA, 2013). Generalized anxiety disorder is highly comorbid with mood disorders and other anxiety disorders (Noyes, 2001), and it tends to be chronic. Also, generalized anxiety disorder appears to increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes, especially in people with preexisting heart conditions (Martens et al., 2010).

Although there have been few investigations aimed at determining the heritability of generalized anxiety disorder, a summary of available family and twin studies suggests that genetic factors play a modest role in the disorder (Hettema et al., 2001). Cognitive theories of generalized anxiety disorder suggest that worry represents a mental strategy to avoid more powerful negative emotions (Aikins & Craske, 2001), perhaps stemming from earlier unpleasant or traumatic experiences. Indeed, one longitudinal study found that childhood maltreatment was strongly related to the development of this disorder during adulthood (Moffitt et al., 2007); worrying might distract people from remembering painful childhood experiences.

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Glossary

anxiety disorder: characterized by excessive and persistent fear and anxiety, and by related disturbances in behavior
generalized anxiety disorder: characterized by a continuous state of excessive, uncontrollable, and pointless worry and apprehension
locus coeruleus: area of the brainstem that contains norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response; has been implicated in panic disorder
panic attack: period of extreme fear or discomfort that develops abruptly; symptoms of panic attacks are both physiological and psychological
panic disorder: anxiety disorder characterized by unexpected panic attacks, along with at least one month of worry about panic attacks or self-defeating behavior related to the attacks
social anxiety disorder: characterized by extreme and persistent fear or anxiety and avoidance of social situations in which one could potentially be evaluated negatively by others

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