Don’t Panic Over Panic Attacks
Yes, they’re terrifying. Yes, they can disrupt your life (to put it mildly). But if our family practice doctors in Delray Beach have examined you and diagnosed your symptoms as a panic attack, believe us.
Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of panic disorder is the inability to believe they are essentially harmless, because the symptoms mirror so many serious disorders, especially heart attacks and strokes.
So we’d like to explain what is happening with your body when you experience a panic attack, and offer some hope for relief from this distressing condition.
What is a panic attack?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, the following symptoms are characteristic of a panic attack:
- palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate (tachycardia)
- trembling or shaking
- sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- feeling of choking
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal distress
- feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
- derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- fear of losing control or going crazy
- fear of dying
- paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
- chills or hot flushes
If you have had two or more panic attacks, live in fear of having another, and have changed your lifestyle in any way to avoid them, this is officially diagnosed as panic disorder.
In addition, other symptoms can accompany a panic attack, including strange tricks of vision, severe headaches, and diarrhea, among others.
The most telltale indication of a panic attack is their out-of-the-blue occurrence. You can be relaxing after dinner, watching TV, and suddenly you’re overwhelmed with the feeling that you’re going to die. Or that you’re losing your mind. You may even dial 911 and end up in the emergency room time and again, only to be told it’s “just” a panic attack.
Of course, “just” does not begin to describe the terror that accompany panic attacks, and they can even make you afraid to leave your home for fear of having another (known as agoraphobia). They can be life-altering and debilitating, unless they are treated properly.
You’re not alone
Many people who suffer from panic attacks keep them a secret, even from their family and doctors, fearing there’s something “wrong” with them. But panic disorder is surprisingly common.
The American Psychological Association (APA) estimates that one out of every 75 Americans experiences panic disorder at some point in their lives. In fact, such famous personalities as Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, and—more recently—Johnny Depp, Adele, Barbra Streisand, and Kim Basinger have all experienced panic disorder.
Still, the mark of panic disorder is being convinced your doctors have “missed something” and that there is something seriously wrong with you. This, in turn, triggers a low level of constant anxiety that, ironically, precipitates more attacks.
Risk factors for them include: a family history of anxiety disorders, especially panic attacks; financial or health problems; some type of major life change such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss or even a promotion or a new baby; a traumatic event such as physical or sexual assault, or an earthquake, fire, hurricane, or tornado; smoking or excessive caffeine intake; hormone fluctuations such as those accompanying menopause; or, a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse.
When the onset of a panic attack is divorced in time from such causes, you may not make the connection between the two. You may even think you’ve successfully dealt with them. But such events can trigger ongoing, subconscious stress, which produces a low-level but steady influx of the fight-or-flight hormones coursing through the body. This in turn eventually manifests in the symptoms of a panic attack.
Tests and treatment
Panic attacks are frightening but not deadly. However, because the symptoms can mimic other diseases that can be life threatening, it’s important to let us know if you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms. We can perform tests that will rule out physical causes and help set your mind at ease.
In addition, although some people may experience only one or two panic attacks in their lifetime, others have them frequently, often several times a day. In this case, they require treatment because they can lead to more serious complications, such as depression, substance abuse, and withdrawal from family, friends, and work.
Panic attacks can be treated, but it may take some time to find the right solution for you. We may prescribe anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants, while guiding you toward such proven long-term therapies as deep breathing and exercise. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has also been successful in helping people retrain their reactions to the symptoms, thus lessening their impact.
The important thing to know is that you don’t have to suffer with panic attacks. We can help ease your mind and guide you on the path to recovery.