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
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.counseling.com/DrMcCoy/ or firstname.lastname@example.org