Lifestyles

Latimer: A panic attack is bad enough, but it’s followed by distress

Panic is a word that brings to mind chaos and fear. It is easy to picture terrorized people running in all directions as well as general noise and disruption from several sources.

For people who experience panic disorder, these kinds of feelings are descriptive of what they live through within their own bodies and minds.

As the name implies, panic disorder involves repeated and unexpected panic attacks. In order for panic disorder to be diagnosed, at least one of these attacks must also be followed by a month or more of distress about the panic attack—worry over what it might mean or that it will happen again.

Panic attacks are by definition very frightening experiences lasting anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more. Symptoms include extreme fear as well as physical sensations such as a racing heart, sweating, hyperventilating, dizziness, shaking and nausea.

Many people in the midst of a panic attack believe they are having a heart attack or that they are dying or ‘going crazy.’

Many people experiencing a panic attack will go to the hospital convinced they are in serious medical distress. Symptoms do subside on their own eventually.

Although many people may experience a panic attack during life in response to a particularly stressful event, true panic disorder affects just under three per cent of adults. It typically begins in early adulthood although it can occur at any age.

About a third of people who develop panic disorder also experience agoraphobia—a crippling fear of being in any place or situation where escape might be difficult or help unavailable. Often, those with agoraphobia become housebound and severely limit their activities and interactions.

Although the exact cause of panic disorder is unknown, it is believed to have both genetic and environmental influences like most psychiatric conditions. We do know it tends to run in families, is linked with other anxiety disorders and often begins during a particularly stressful period in a person’s life.

Fortunately, panic disorder is treatable. Cognitive behaviour therapy is very effective with this condition, as are SSRI medications. A combination of these treatments is usually optimal.

What is not recommended is medication such as ativan (lorazepam) taken as needed.  Unfortunately, this is still commonly prescribed and can lead to both psychological and physical dependency.

In addition, education surrounding panic attacks can help to take away the fear of the unknown.

Some simple lifestyle changes may also be helpful in managing anxiety. These include limiting caffeine and alcohol use, getting regular and adequate sleep, and exercising.

Getting appropriate care early on is very important in panic disorder. The sooner the condition is recognized and treated, the less likely a phobia will develop and the less damage done in the brain.

Unfortunately, stigma and lack of awareness about mental illness often lead people to delay seeking help. Sometimes, the physical symptoms associated with panic disorder can also cause confusion and people go several years before receiving an adequate diagnosis.

If you or a loved one are experiencing panic attacks, speak with your doctor about it. Effective help is available.

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