Don’t panic. That’s a phrase we hear countless times in a day. We hear it in conversation, on TV, in the movies. We say it to ourselves. Why? Because when we panic– experience an intense sensation of fear or anxiety in response to an actual danger—we are more likely to lose control and react to potentially unsafe even life-threatening events in a frantic or irrational way. Panic inhibits our ability to reason clearly or logically. Think about the explosion of fear, the borderline hysteria you felt the day you momentarily lost sight of your six-year-old in the mall. Or the time your car skidded violently on a rain-soaked road. Even before you registered what was happening, your body released adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones that signal danger. Those hormones cause physical reactions: heart pounding, shallow breathing, sweating and shivering, shaking, and other unpleasant physical sensations.
The symptoms of a panic attack may cause the person to feel that their body is failing. The symptoms can be understood as follows. First, there is frequently the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the fight-or-flight response when the body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating. Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), causing compensatory metabolic acidosis activating chemosensing mechanisms which translate this pH shift into autonomic and respiratory responses. The person him/herself may overlook the hyperventilation, having become preoccupied with the associated somatic symptoms.
For me it’s knowing or believing I don’t have enough time to finish an assignment, and then I feel like a failure. Right now, I’m doing the most difficult assignment of my life, and if I don’t finish it on time, my graduation will be delayed. This is on top of all my other responsibilities. And to think that I’m supposed to have an accommodation for extra time. Ha! The university and the state don’t care. They just want me to fail so I have to dish out more money to line the pockets of the corporation that assigned this required project.
Paula had her first panic attack six months ago. She was in her office preparing for an important work presentation when, suddenly, she felt an intense wave of fear. Then the room started spinning and she felt like she was going to throw up. Her whole body was shaking, she couldn’t catch her breath, and her heart was pounding out of her chest. She gripped her desk until the episode passed, but it left her deeply shaken.
When used in the appropriate person with close monitoring, medications can be quite effective as part of treatment for panic disorder. However, as anything that is ingested carries a risk of side effects, it is important for the individual who has panic attacks to work closely with the prescribing health care professional to decide whether treatment with medications is an appropriate intervention and, if so, which medication should be administered. The person being treated should be closely monitored for the possibility of side effects that can vary from minor to severe, and in some cases, even be life-threatening. Due to the possible risks to the fetus of a mother being treated for panic attacks with medication, psychotherapy should be the first treatment tried when possible during pregnancy and the risk of medication treatment should be weighed against the risk of continued panic attacks in regard to the impact of a developing fetus.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an extreme anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event. PTSD can be thought of as a panic attack that rarely, if ever, lets up. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks or nightmares about what happened, hypervigilance, startling easily, withdrawing from others, and avoiding situations that remind you of the event.
Anxiety disorders differ from normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness and involve excessive fear or anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect more than 25 million Americans. But anxiety disorders are treatable and a number of effective treatments are available. Treatment helps most people lead normal productive lives.
From a cardiac standpoint, unless coincident heart disease is also present, the prognosis after having chest pain due to an anxiety attack is very good. However, all too often—especially in an emergency room setting where people who have chest pain due to anxiety attacks often wind up—doctors who rule out a cardiac emergency are likely to brush the patient off as having a minor problem of no significance; but panic attacks should not be brushed off.
Acupuncture is a treatment derived from traditional Chinese medicine. It consists of inserting very thin needles into the body in targeted areas. To date there is very little evidence that acupuncture can significantly treat generalized anxiety, although there are currently ongoing research trials for PTSD. One study did find that acupuncture can reduce pre-operative anxiety.
Medication: Many antidepressants can work for anxiety disorders. They include escitalopram (Lexapro) and fluoxetine (Prozac). Certain anticonvulsant medicines (typically taken for epilepsy) and low-dose antipsychotic drugs can be added to help make other treatments work better. Anxiolytics are also drugs that help lower anxiety. Examples are alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin). They’re prescribed for social or generalized anxiety disorder as well as for panic attacks.
Meditation may also be helpful in the treatment of panic disorders. There was a meta-analysis of the comorbidity of panic disorders and agoraphobia. It used exposure therapy to treat the patients over a period. Hundreds of patients were used in these studies and they all met the DSM-IV criteria for both of these disorders. A result was that thirty-two percent of patients had a panic episode after treatment. They concluded that the use of exposure therapy has lasting efficacy for a client who is living with a panic disorder and agoraphobia.
According to a study published in Psychology Medicine1, people who suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder may be at higher risk of heart attack and heart disease later in life. While the link between panic disorder and heart disease remains controversial, the study found that compared to individuals without panic disorder, sufferers were found to have up to a 36% higher risk of heart attack and up to 47% higher risk of heart disease. If you suffer from panic attacks, seek attention for any chest pain symptoms in order to rule out any issues with heart health.
There remains a chance of panic symptoms becoming triggered or being made worse due to increased respiration rate that occurs during aerobic exercise. This increased respiration rate can lead to hyperventilation and hyperventilation syndrome, which mimics symptoms of a heart attack, thus inducing a panic attack. Benefits of incorporating an exercise regimen have shown best results when paced accordingly.