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- What are Panic Attacks?
- Diagnosing Panic Attacks
- What Causes Panic Attacks?
- Help for Panic Attacks
- More Information on Panic Attacks
What are Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks can occur at any time of the day or night and are so disturbing that many people have been rushed to emergency medical centers, since panic attacks are often mistaken for heart attacks or seizures.
A panic attack is a physiological response to fear or sudden anxiety. The object of the fear can be either physical (like a spider) or an event (fear of flying, fear of heart attack or dying) or it can be to an imagined situation or event. For many sufferers panic attacks occur without an apparent trigger, they just 'happen' despite your efforts to curtail them, and this causes a great deal of distress and anxiety.
Many people who suffer from panic attacks would be surprised to hear that this is a relatively common condition generally affecting more women than men. Some people experience panic or anxiety attacks once or twice during times of stress, while others have a full blown Panic Disorder, experiencing panic attacks a few times a week, or even on a daily basis.
Diagnosing Panic Attacks
You health care practitioner will probably give you a full physical exam to rule out any underlying medical conditions such as heart problems or an overactive thyroid when diagnosing you for panic atacks.
Once these possibilities have been eliminated, your physician will ask you more about your panic attacks. You will be asked when the symptoms started, how they manifest, when, where and how often they occur. Depending on the frequency of the attacks, you might be diagnosed with a Panic Disorder.
A Panic Disorder will only be diagnosed if there are at least three panic attacks within a three week period in reaction to situations that are not life threatening and which are not associated with physical exertion.
A panic attack is usually experienced as an intense feeling of fear.
Because of these intense and frightening feelings, many people experiencing panic attacks are seen in Emergency Hospital Rooms with suspected heart attacks. However, panic attacks are not known to affect the heart or precipitate a heart attack.
It is a good idea to seek help if you experience the symptoms of a panic attack. Because many of these symptoms can mimic an underlying medical condition it is important to have a health care professional perform a thorough physical examination to rule them out. If there is no underlying medical problem, rest assured that panic attacks can be managed, and that there are treatments!
What Causes Panic Attacks?
A panic attack is a series of physiological and chemical responses caused when the brain 'misinterprets' a situation as life threatening. The body has a natural "flight or fight" alarm response to danger.
When faced with a life threatening situation, one may either stay put and face the danger (fight), or run away from the danger (flight). A panic attack happens when this feeling gets out of hand.
Sometimes it’s the body’s over-reaction to a feared situation, and other times there is no danger at all. There is no exclusive explanation for why this happens, but research suggests that some people are genetically more predisposed to a physiological reaction to fear, and therefore have an increased tendency to ‘misinterpret’ physical alarm signals.
Symptoms of Panic Attacks
- A pounding heart and increased pulse rate
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or feeling like you’re going to faint
- Feelings of unreality or detachment
- Feelings of losing control or going mad
- Chills or hot flushes
- Fear of dying
Help for Panic Attacks
There are a number of treatment options and coping techniques for panic attacks and it is important to explore which work best for you.
Treatment Options for Panic Attacks
Unfortunately many medical doctors have not been sufficiently trained in how to help people suffering from panic attacks. The usual medical treatment involves reassuring the patient that he or she is 'fine' and prescribing strong anxiolytic medication, which is often extremely addictive with side effects that are sometimes more debilitating than the panic attacks themselves. It is important to recognize that panic attacks can be relatively easily treated without medication and then to refer these patients for treatment during the early stages of the problem. This would mean that there would be fewer people with chronic and severe forms of panic disorder and fewer dependent on strong drug therapy.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CTB)
This form of therapy is practised by psychologists and has been very successful in treating Panic Attacks. By investigating and recognizing the thoughts and situations that ‘trigger’ the panic attacks, strategies and coping mechanisms can be put into practice – at your own pace. Your therapist will provide you with ‘life tools’ and behavioural techniques to help you manage the panic attacks and prevent future ones. The more in control you feel, the less likely you will be to feel anxious – thereby further reducing the incidence and severity of panic attacks
Meditation, yoga and deep breathing are some techniques that can be used to help control anxiety and lessen the stress that might be triggering the attacks. These can be very successfully taught by a psychologist and can also be learnt by using self-help books and CD’s composed by experts.
More Information on Panic Attacks
Tips for Coping with Panic Attacks
Even if you know what triggers your panic attacks, try not to avoid the situation completely. Often we fear the unknown and by running away, the trigger itself can become larger than life and all-consuming.
Try to remember that you are not expected to rid yourself of panic attacks overnight. While it’s very easy for onlookers to simply say "Don’t panic, just relax and it will pass," for the person suffering from panic attacks, it is extremely hard to imagine the attack being over. Taking small steps (that you feel you can cope with) and very gradually increasing the demands on yourself can help facilitate a smooth transition back to a panic-free life.
If you are experiencing stress, whether in your relationships or at work, try and work on ways to improve or change the stressful circumstances – stress is a major precipitant of Panic Attacks. Take steps to change the things that can be changed and learn stress management techniques.
Make sure that you eat regular wholesome meals, have sufficient sleep and also exercise regularly – all important in the management of Panic Attacks.
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and CNS depressants, especially alcohol.
While Having a Panic Attack:
- Try not to let your mind get the better of you by running away with negative thoughts of death, disaster or fainting. Try to focus on the thought that the "this too shall pass." Try saying this out loud – remember if you can talk, it means you are still breathing!
- Slow down your breathing by closing your eyes, taking SLOW deep breaths and blowing each breath out through pursed lips. By keeping your hand on your stomach you will become more aware of your breathing.
- Don’t concentrate too hard on the symptoms as this will only increase your anxiety. Try to simply ‘let go’ of the need to stop the attack and rather try to ride it out - getting yourself ‘through’ the worst of it until it passes.
- Keep in mind there is no actual danger in having a panic attack. Reassure yourself that the fear of harm is only sustaining the attack and allowing it to last longer than necessary!
For more information, see our articles on Panic Disorder, Anxiety and Social Anxiety.
Are there other Disorders that May be Related to Panic Attacks?
It is important to get a proper diagnosis as panic attacks can also occur in other disorders or conditions such as:
- Social anxiety
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD)
- Mitral Valve Prolapse
- Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushings Disease)
- Drug withdrawal
- Side effects of prescription drugs
- Caffeine overdose