Maybe it’s happened to you. Some trigger, some event or even something not understood causes it to happen. Hands sweat, heart beat increases, breathing becomes rapid, head becomes dizzy, stomach may become upset and the world feels like it’s falling apart. A sense of impending doom prevails. You’re having a panic attack although it might actually feel like a heart attack or stroke. It may only last 30 seconds but it feels much longer. If it happens in public, the attack can be terribly embarrassing. And if the attacks persists, normal behavior may be altered to avoid triggers and ensuing events. A normal functioning life is disrupted.
About twice as many woman than men experience panic attacks. As high as 18% of American adults experience panic attacks and 2.7% of American adults are diagnosed with panic disorder. Panic attacks are driven by intense anxiety. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat.”
Scholars of evolutionary psychology believe that panic and anxiety are heritable adaptive mechanisms that can produce beneficial results in certain circumstances. In “safe” situations needless anxiety is of no value. However, in dangerous situations where lifesaving solutions are needed, worry might be a valuable tool. The mental conflict arises when safe situations are perceived as dangerous situations, and needless worry and panic attacks disable a person.
If left untreated, ongoing panic attacks may lead to other complications including alcohol or substance abuse. Relationship problems are likely to develop along with financial problems. Avoidance of social interactions is likely as to escape the embarrassment of a public panic attack. Other health issues may arise causing general health to decline. Older women who experience panic attacks suffer from an increased risk of cardiovascular events and death. Finally suicidal thoughts may be a result of ongoing panic attacks. Panic attacks should not be taken lightly and should be addressed by a trained therapist.
Panic attacks may be brought on due to several reasons: genetics, significant life stressors, brain function or simply having a personality type with a tendency towards negative thinking. Risk may be increased if there is a family history of the disorder, a major life event such as the death of a loved one, a traumatic event, excessive caffeine intake or a history of abuse.
According to the American Psychological Association, patient information and understanding the nature of panic attacks is the first step in the healing process. Some patients might feel as if they are actually “losing their mind”. Understanding the condition and knowing that there are multiple strategies to relieve the condition may bring the patient some immediate relief while paving the way to a treatment plan.
Understanding the nature of triggers through cognitive therapy is one strategy to remove the power of the trigger. Once a patient understands that trigger and attack are separate events, they may manage the trigger and hopefully avoid the attack. Relaxation techniques may also be introduced along with talk therapy or even support groups. Finally, medication has been recommended for some patients. A trained professional therapist can provide recommended tools, strategies and interventions to help the patient regain control of their life.
Polly Sykes, Registered Psychotherapist, MEd, RP, is a Toronto Psychotherapist with extensive post-graduate training and experience in the treatment of Trauma, and the use of Emotion-Focused Therapy for both Individuals and Couples. The support of an experienced and highly-skilled Psychotherapist can be a powerful tool to help you face the challenges of life with more hope, more self-acceptance, and stronger relational bonds.