What Are Panic Attacks?

By: Juliet Cohen


Panic attacks are frightening but fortunately physically harmless episodes. Panic disorder is a common condition in which a person has episodes of intense fear or anxiety that occur suddenly. These episodes--called panic attacks--can last from minutes to hours. They may occur only once in a while, or they may occur quite frequently. They can occur at random or after a person is exposed to various events that may "trigger" a panic attack. Panic disorder sufferers usually have a series of intense episodes of extreme anxiety, known as panic attacks. These attacks typically last 10 minutes however can be short lived- 1-5 minutes as well. Some individuals deal with these events on a regular basis—sometimes daily or weekly. The outward symptoms of a panic attack often cause negative social experiences. As a result, as many as 36% of all individuals with panic disorder also have agoraphobia. At least 1.7% of adult Americans, or about 3 million people, will have panic attacks at some time in their lives. Panic attacks are a period of intense fear in which 4 of 13 defined symptoms develop abruptly and peak rapidly less than 10 minutes from symptom onset.

Some people are affected by frequent panic attacks, a condition known as panic disorder. Panic disorder is thought to be inherited for the most part. People experiencing panic attacks may fear they are dying, that they are suffocating, or that they are having a heart attack. Panic attacks can indicate the presence of panic disorder, depression, or other forms of anxiety-based illnesses. About 5% of the population will experience panic attacks during their lifetimes. A person experiencing a panic attack may believe that he or she is having a heart attack or that death is imminent. The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them. Panic Disorder can continue for months or even years, depending on how and when treatment is sought. There is also some evidence that many individuals may experience a cessation of symptoms naturally later in life. Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep. Panic attacks are treated with reassurance and relaxation techniques.

Most people get better with treatment. Panic Disorder is real and potentially disabling, but it can be controlled and successfully treated. People frequently go to hospital emergency rooms when they are having panic attacks, and extensive medical tests may be performed to rule out these other conditions, thus creating further anxiety. Tricyclic antidepressants such as imipramine and MAO inhibitors such as phenelzine (Nardil) have also been used, but many individuals experience side effects that are difficult to tolerate. Exposure to the phobia trigger multiple times without a resulting panic attack (due to medication) can often break the phobia-panic pattern, allowing people to function around their phobia without the help of medications. Most stimulant drugs (caffeine, nicotine, cocaine) would be expected to worsen the condition, since they directly increase the symptoms of panic, such as heart rate. Stress-relieving activities such as tai-chi, yoga, and physical exercise can also help ameliorate the causes of panic disorder.

Panic Attack Treatment Tips

1. Tricyclic antidepressants such as imipramine and MAO inhibitors such as phenelzine (Nardil) have also been used.

2. Exposure to the phobia trigger multiple times without a resulting panic attack.

3. Stress-relieving activities such as tai-chi, yoga, and physical exercise can also help ameliorate the causes of panic disorder.

4. Avoid stimulants, such as nicotine and caffeine, which can be found not only in coffee, but many teas, colas and chocolate.

5. Psychotherapy offers support and helps to minimize the fearfulness of symptoms, and sometimes is sufficient to clear up the disorder.

6. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people learn to deal with panic symptoms, using techniques like muscle and breathing relaxation.

7. Antidepressants, such as Tofranil, often help reduce anxiety and the frequency and severity of panic attacks.

8. Meta-analyses13-15 support the efficacy of CBT in improving panic symptoms and overall disability.

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Juliet Cohen writes articles for depression clinic and how to treat depression. For more information visit our site at www.depression-clinic.com.

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