Panic attacks are extremely frightening. Panic sufferers often believe
they are having a heart attack and they dash to their physician
or end up in an emergency room. Which is exactly what they should
do. An accurate diagnosis is the first step in relieving panic attacks.
A diagnosis is vital, because panic attacks mimic a number of potentially
serious physical disorders. The next step is treatment. No one should
have to endure repeated episodes of distressing panic. Furthermore,
early treatment may prevent the condition from becoming chronic.
Not all panic attacks are created equal. The symptoms are unique
to the individual sufferer. However, according to the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association,
typical symptoms are:Racing or pounding heart:
Sweating, flushing or feeling chilled
Chest pains or tightness
Difficulty getting your breath, or a sense of smothering
Dizziness, light-headedness, tingling or numbness
Trembling or shaking
Nausea or abdominal discomfort
Fear of losing control
Sometimes panic attacks appear to come out of the blue without rhyme
or reason. This is not true with a phobia, such as agoraphobia,
which has a distinctive pattern. Agoraphobics may have an attack
in situations from which escape is difficult or embarrassing (i.e.,
on a bridge, a crowded theater). Someone who is fearful of flying
may have a panic attack while entering an airplane, or perhaps,
while contemplating a flight. The person could then become frightened
by the "idea" of having another panic attack. The panic
attack itself becomes the feared event. He or she begins to avoid
situations that are associated with the attacks. This can become
a distressing pattern from which it is difficult to break free.
Cognitive theorists believe that our thoughts create our anxiety.
Consider these examples for a moment. A professional athlete consistently
felt his chest constrict and his heart pound whenever he passed
through a tunnel. A woman walking her dog in a park a couple of
blocks from her home suddenly felt faint. If one were to ask the
athlete what he thought immediately before the symptoms began, he
might say, "Tunnels can collapse. If this one collapses I will
be buried alive. I won't be able to breathe." As he envisaged
potential engineering blunders, a visualization of a collapsing
tunnel brusquely flashed through his mind. He gasped for breath.
Let's return to the woman in the park. She might answer, if asked
about her thoughts before she felt faint, "I am too far from
home to cry out if someone jumped from the bushes and grabbed me.
No one would hear me. I could be killed." Simultaneously, she
visualized a huge Neanderthal of a man lunging for her. It is very
likely that their thoughts and visualizations contributed the material
to which they reacted. According to Aaron T. Beck (1976), we can
learn to "observe that a thought links the eternal stimulus
with the emotional response." In other words, "tunnel"
does not signal danger, until the thought "It will collapse"
links to it--stimulating the emotional response--anxiety.
As stated previously, panic attack symptoms are frightening, especially
when one does not understand why one's body is reacting in such
a bizarre manner. A panic attack is an example of one's body doing
what it was designed to do, yet, at an inappropriate time. The attacks
are part of the body's cautionary or alarm system. It is saying,
"Be alert, there is danger-react!" The autonomic nervous
system cannot differentiate between a genuine physical danger (an
18 wheeler running amuck) and environmental stress "created"
by life in the worldwide web century. Heredity, other biological
factors, stressful life circumstances, and thought patterns that
create needless stress combine to encourage the onset of panic attacks.
The specific panic mechanism is unknown, however, be assured researchers
are eagerly seeking the answers.
Is there any good news? Yes, panic attacks can be, and frequently
are, successfully treated. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication
are commonly the recommended treatments. Anti-anxiety medication
works rapidly to relieve distressing symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral
therapy contributes tools with which to cope more adaptively, thereby,
reducing the likelihood that panic attacks will reoccur.
What can you do if you are currently experiencing panic attacks?
Here are a few suggestions:
Don't be frightened-panic attacks cannot harm you.
Write everything you can remember about your attack immediately
after it passes (You will gather important information about when,
where and under what circumstances your attacks occur.).
Watch those scary thoughts (The tunnel will not collapse. That is
a safer bet than the lottery.).
Repeat to yourself, "I will not look crazy, faint, die or lose
Try deep breathing. Breathe in through your nose, hold it a few
seconds, and then breathe out through your mouth. We tend to breathe
in shallow, rapid little breaths when we are anxious, which can
exacerbate the problem.
Get professional help.
Panic attacks are not an infrequent stress reaction. Panic sufferers
have an abundance of company. According to the National Institute
of Mental Health, approximately 3 million Americans will have panic
disorder at some time during their lives.
Research studies indicate that a healthy body is a great advantage
in successfully coping with stress. One does not have to be Arnold
Schwarzenegger to be healthy. Simply strive to be your healthiest.
Nutritional intake, exercise, quality sleep, supportive relationships,
spirituality and adaptive coping patterns contribute to your overall
wellness. If you are not sure how to be healthier, perhaps, you
would like to learn more. There is a wealth of wellness information
on the Internet and in your neighborhood bookstores.
If you are experiencing panic symptoms and have not consulted your
primary care physician for a diagnosis-- please call him or her
today. You will be glad you did.
Dr. Dorothy McCoy (2002)
Psychotherapist and author of self-help books, workbooks, CDs and
e-courses on anxiety and other health issues. Website: www.police-stress.com