Do you remember Tony Soprano getting panic attacks in the HBO hit series? Well, today I would like to give you some interesting information about this serious medical problem.
At one time, not all that long ago, panic attacks were dismissed as the result of weak nerves or the inability to deal with stress. The medical profession now recognizes that this is not the case. Panic attacks are very real medical episodes. If recognized and handled correctly, most patients are able to cope and avoid further harm.
Recognizing a Panic Attack
Panic attacks are defined as episodes of intense fear without any actual cause, accompanied by strong physical symptoms. Panic attacks can be compared to your reaction when confronted with sudden danger, like encountering a snake in the woods. Adrenaline floods your body and prepares you for a “fight or flight” response. Your heart pounds and you may break into a sweat. When the danger is no longer present, your body returns to normal. This is how a panic attack may feel, only without the snake.
Some people who experience a panic attack, only have one or two in their lifetimes. If panic attacks are regular or more frequent, a person may be diagnosed with panic disorder, which is estimated to afflict from 2 to 6 million Americans. Whether you have had just one panic attack or many, a diagnosis from your doctor is essential. The symptoms of panic attacks mimic other medical conditions, such as a heart attack, which must be ruled out.
Along with sweating and rapid heart rate, symptoms of a panic attack include nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, chills, chest pain, hyperventilation, trouble swallowing, tightness in the throat, abdominal cramping and hot flashes. Some people feel like they could be dying during an attack. Regardless of your specific symptoms, it is a very frightening medical condition.
A panic attack can occur anytime, even when you’re busy at work or driving your car. The symptoms tend to peak after 10 minutes, and attacks typically last for about half an hour. Of course, the length may vary, with some panic attacks lasting for several hours. Seeing your doctor is the first step in taking control and developing coping strategies to deal with panic attacks.
Reducing Your Risk and Learning to Cope
Stress is a significant risk factor for panic attacks. The intense stress that accompanies a major life change or a traumatic event like a loss of a loved one or a frightening accident can trigger an attack. Panic attacks can also stem from past events, such as sexual abuse. It is thought that a family history of panic attacks makes you more susceptible.
Your doctor has several options for treating your panic attacks. Prescription medications have been proven to be effective. One class of antidepressants called SSRI’s have low risk of side effects and are often the first medications used for treatment. Psychotherapy is also highly effective at helping patients recognize patterns that may have led to panic attacks, and changing these thoughts and/or behaviors. Many therapists specialize in treating panic disorder.
At home, relaxation and stress management techniques are key to coping and preventing future attacks. Fear of attacks can cause undue stress, so try meditation, yoga, or simply engaging in activities that make you calm, like reading or another hobby. I encourage patients to join support groups to connect with others who understand what it is like to deal with panic disorder. The empathy of others in a similar position can reduce stress.
Another highly effective stress reliever is exercise. Whether you like to take classes at the gym or go for walks in the evening, getting active boosts your mood and alleviates physical stress.
Caffeine and alcohol can make some people more vulnerable to panic attacks, so avoid these substances if they have been triggers in the past. Getting adequate sleep can also reduce stress and increase your ability to cope with difficult situations.
It is important to remember that panic attacks are not your fault. You can take control by seeing your doctor and following his or her treatment plan. Reaching out to friends and family may be difficult, but their support is essential in managing panic disorder. If you practice stress-reducing techniques and take advantage of the support available, panic attacks will no longer be a source of fear and anxiety in your life.