Lots of people think they are having a panic attack, so the term has become overused. Real panic attacks have a very specific set of symptoms. When they actually get a panic attack, some people think they have a medical problem since they can experience symptoms like shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, pressure in the chest, and dizziness. It’s most common in a young person under stress, and they often think they are having a heart attack because many of the symptoms are similar, but after ruling out a cardiac problem, it often turns out to be panic disorder.
While being under stress may trigger a panic attack, certain people are more predisposed to panic than others. It runs in families, and people with panic attacks often have a close relative with some sort of anxiety-related problem. It can be a result of being traumatized, or a result of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some people can be severely stressed and never get panic attacks, making it clear that some people are more biologically vulnerable to anxiety than others.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU ARE HAVING A PANIC ATTACK?
You don’t have to have all the symptoms. Four or more of any of the following means you are experiencing a panic attack:
Sweating, shakiness, dizziness, feeling your heart pounding, getting nauseous, thoughts that you are going crazy or dying—these are all symptoms of a panic attack.
If you have had more than one panic attack in between attacks, you are worrying about having another one. Sometimes the fear and resulting debilitation is worse when anticipating the attack than when one actually occurs.
WHAT CAUSES PANIC ATTACKS?
No one knows exactly. Your body sets off an alarm and it never lasts more than 15-20 minutes. If you know you can ride it out, and therefore don’t get even more anxious about it in response, then the more infrequent they become.
Breathe into a paper bag. Part of what brings on symptoms is breathing in and out too quickly which causes a high level of carbon dioxide to be present in your body, therefore resulting in tingly, sweating, flushing sensations. If you can slow down and breathe into a bag, you can help control the symptoms.
ARE THERE WAYS TO CONTROL ANXIETY AND AVOID GETTING REPEATED PANIC ATTACKS?
- Learn to relax. If you can use relaxation techniques, you can diminish the anxiety.
- Avoid alcohol, drugs, caffeine, diet pills, cold medicines, and chocolate. These can be a real trigger for a panic attacks.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Learn to diminish your worry, and you’ll diminish attacks.
- Real panic disorders often need the intervention of a professional. A recent study at The New York Presbyterian Hospital showed that talk therapy can be just as effective as medication for panic disorder.
IF YOU’VE BEEN TO DOCTORS AND EVEN EMERGENCY ROOMS WITH PANIC SYMPTOMS AND HAVE FOUND NO RELIEF, WHATS THE BEST WAY TO GET THE RIGHT TREATMENT?
First, make sure you don’t have a medical problem. Make sure you don’t have cardiac problems; check your thyroid gland. You should have a full check up. Typically panic attacks start in the late teens or early adulthood. Any psychiatrist or psychologist experienced in cognitive behavior therapy should be able to treat you. Hospitals have experts in anxiety disorders so you can always start there. It’s not a long term treatment. Usually it takes only 10 to 15 sessions to get it under control.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO REGAIN CONTROL WHEN PANIC ATTACKS HAVE PROGRESSED TO THE POINT WHERE PATIENTS CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOR, AND AVOID PLACES AND SITUATIONS THAT MIGHT TRIGGER ANOTHER ATTACK?
It’s called “Agoraphobia” when it progresses to the point that you try to avoid situations or places that could trigger an attack—fear or an uncontrollable worry about escaping that develops after panic attacks. But if you try to avoid situations or have uncontrollable fear of having an attack, you start staying closer and closer to home, and it only gets worse.
It’s important to know that panic attacks are very treatable. Once you recognize what it is and realize your life can get compromised, enter treatment. Psychotherapy definitely works. You can then find out whether medication or therapy works best for you.