People who have panic attacks (feelings of intense fear that can be a sign of a type of anxiety disorder called panic disorder), often feel like they are having an urgent health crisis because the symptoms can be so sudden and severe. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults (18 percent of the population).
“Symptoms of anxiety disorder range around mood, cognitive, and physical symptoms,” explains Joel Sherrill, PhD, deputy director of the Division of Services and Intervention Research at the National Institute of Mental Health. The long list of symptoms includes everything from feelings of restlessness or having difficulty concentrating, to muscle tension, fatigue, and sleep problems. While people who have anxiety or panic attacks often experience symptoms for months, they don’t always realize that they have anxiety.
“They seek treatment because they can’t sleep or they get a massage or go to the doctor because they can’t relax,” says Karen Cassiday, PhD, ACT, president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Worry itself seems like the right thing to do so they don’t seek help for the worry,” says Dr. Cassiday. “With panic, you have unexpected, sudden attacks of intense fear,” says Dr. Sherrill. “You feel out of control, like you are going to die, and the physical symptoms—tightness of chest, difficulty breathing—can be alarming.” (Here are some weird things that might be making you anxious.)
First, rule out other possibilities
Other physical conditions, as well as the side effects of certain medications, can mimic the symptoms of an anxiety attack and panic disorder. “Anyone who is experiencing symptoms that are intense or overwhelming, especially if they are new, should seek medical advice to make sure they rule out physical cause,” says Dr. Sherrill. Conditions such as low blood sugar, an overactive thyroid gland, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune disorders, inner ear disorders, and dysfunction of the mitral valve of the heart can mimic anxiety while medications such as codeine, calcium channel blockers, ACE inhibitors, statins, and benzodiazepines can cause anxiety-like symptoms such as agitation, dizziness, flushing, tremors, restlessness, palpitations, and fatigue. “Those who experience a panic attack may think they are having a heart attack,” says Dr. Sherrill. “The first thing to do is make sure they are not.” (Here are the other chest pains you might mistake for a heart attack.)