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Panic Disorder

By Elaine Pomfrey

Most people first learn about panic attacks in the emergency room. They were rushed there convinced they were having a heart attack because of chest pain, dizziness and a rapid heartbeat. If they test negative for a heart attack, the diagnosis is usually panic attack. Fortunately, panic attacks are one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders.

Panic AttackA panic attack is when you are suddenly seized by terror for no apparent reason. You may experience pressure in the chest, light-headedness, shortness of breath, sweating, heart pounding or shaking. You may feel like you are dying or losing your mind.  A panic attack usually lasts about 10 minutes, but may be longer. The diagnosis of panic disorder applies when frequent panic attacks are experienced. 6 million Americans in a given year experience panic disorder. It is twice as prevalent among women.

Although the exact cause is undetermined, one theory is that in some people, the flight or fight response is triggered by mild or moderate stress, like an exam. The body goes on red alert and begins pumping stress hormones, even though there is no apparent danger present.

People with panic disorder are highly vigilant to the possibility of recurring panic attacks. Normal physical sensations like a quickened heartbeat can precipitate a panic attack by causing the patient to feel an attack is about to begin. Because panic attacks can happen anywhere, on the street, in an airplane, etc., many sufferers limit their activities. One third either rely on a “safety person,” like a relative, to accompany them on their chores or stay at home to avoid potentially threatening situations. Agoraphobia can develop from panic disorder if it is left untreated. Agoraphobics fear being in places or situations from which it would be difficult to escape if a panic attack should overtake them.

Many panic attack sufferers do not seek treatment. However, once diagnosed, panic disorder is usually treated effectively with medication or cognitive-behavioral therapy. Doctors most commonly prescribe antidepressants in the group of SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to reduce the severity of the symptoms and help prevent attacks. Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT helps the patient become aware that she is having anxiety-producing (or toxic) thoughts. A CBT therapist teaches the patient new patterns of thinking to replace these toxic thoughts. Research has shown recovery rates of up to 70% after just 8-15 sessions of CBT.

Physicians also recognize that meditation and stress management techniques help prevent the recurrence of panic attacks by helping the patient relax. The Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique is an easy to learn technique that gives deep rest to the mind and body. A meta-analysis of 146 research studies showed that the TM technique was twice as effective in reducing anxiety than other techniques such as the Relaxation Response, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, EMG Biofeedback, etc.

Other lifestyle suggestions include the avoidance of caffeine, alcohol and recreational drugs because they can increase anxiety and precipitate panic attacks. Certain foods like complex carbohydrates reduce anxiety by increasing the amount of serotonin in the body. Participation in a support group for people with panic disorder may alleviate some of the anxiety by connecting with others who are facing similar issues.

Additional Information:

The Transcendental Meditation technique is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical diagnosis or treatment.
Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider regarding any medical condition. Individual results may vary.

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