Have you ever had an episode when your heart pounded and you felt dizzy, shaky, and scared even though you weren't in any danger? You may have had a panic attack. People who experience a panic attack often think they are having a heart attack or are going crazy or losing control, but these fears aren't realized. An attack, which can cause nausea and sweating, may last from a few minutes to a day.
About 2.4 million US adults have a panic attack each year, although some children also experience them; women are twice as likely as men to have a panic attack. A pattern of panic attacks, called panic disorder, increases the risk of depression, phobias, suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug dependence.
What Causes Panic Disorder?
People who have repeated, frequent panic attacks are typically considered to have panic disorder. Although the cause isn't clear, it probably is a combination of family history, stress load, and other factors. Many panic attacks are triggered by consuming too much caffeine or stimulating drugs. In other cases, attacks occur in connection with depression or drug withdrawal. Some health problems, such as a heart attack or an overactive thyroid gland, can cause symptoms that may be confused with those of a panic attack.
Some people who have panic disorder are so worried about having another attack that they begin to avoid situations that they fear will trigger one. This anticipatory anxiety and avoidance can keep them from leaving home.
How Can Panic Disorder Be Managed?
Treatment, usually in the form of medication and cognitive behavior therapy, is available to help keep the disorder from progressing. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can also reduce stress and help you relax.
Antidepressant drugs and anti-anxiety medications, alone or in combination, are often prescribed to prevent or reduce the number and severity of panic attacks and decrease anticipatory anxiety. There are many antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs available; your doctor will help you choose the one that is best for you. These drugs are used as long as it takes for you to get and stay better.
Cognitive behavior therapy is designed to help you recognize situations that trigger an attack and to change thinking and behaviors that contribute to the cycle of fear. A therapist can help you learn how to cope with anxiety, stress, and hyperventilation using relaxation, breathing, and imaging techniques. Patients usually meet with a therapist for 1 to 3 hours a week for 8 to 10 weeks.
For More Information on Panic Disorder:
Anxiety Disorders Association of America
8730 Georgia Ave, Suite 600
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Freedom From Fear
308 Seaview Ave
Staten Island, NY 10305
718-351-1717 (Ext. 24)
National Anxiety Foundation 3135 Custer Dr
Lexington, KY 40517
National Mental Health Association
2001 N Beauregard St, 12th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
800-969-6642, TTY line: 800-433-5959
The First Step for Anxiety and Palpitations
“Don't forget to check for hyperthyroidism in patients with frequent episodes of palpitations and anxiety. I was reminded of this after seeing a 30-year-old woman who had had these symptoms for the past 2 years. She had seen several physicians and was being treated with antidepressants. A thyroid function test showed readily treatable hyperthyroidism.” - Winston W. Tan, MD, Stephenville, Texas.