Coping with panic attacks

by Dr. Christopher H. Singh

Last winter, I had a driver come into my clinic complaining of shortness of breath, rapid heart rate and chest pain.

He reported it started about an hour before, when he was driving in heavy traffic during a snowstorm. Naturally, I referred him to the emergency room to be checked out for a possible heart attack. As it turns out, his heart was fine and he had just experienced his first panic attack.

A panic attack is simply a sudden feeling of intense fear or panic that develops for no apparent reason. Often, panic attacks trigger severe physical reactions. In the past, panic attacks were attributed to stress or overactive nerves, however they are now recognized as a legitimate medical condition. Fortunately, modern treatments are often very effective.

The symptoms of a panic attack can vary quite greatly from person to person. They can include: chest pain; rapid heart rate; shortness of breath; sweating; nausea; dizziness; headache; chills; and hyperventilation.

Many of the above symptoms can resemble life-threatening conditions. Thus, it is vital to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

In most cases, panic attacks begin suddenly, without any warning. They can occur at any time –even when you are sleeping. However, many people experience panic attacks during stressful situations. The symptoms of a panic attack are usually short-lived, most only lasting between 30 to 60 minutes.

The exact cause of panic attacks is still unknown. However, researchers think that genetics and stress are the two main contributing factors. Traumatic events such as the death or serious illness of a loved one or major life changes are common initiating factors.

Diagnosing panic attacks is not always easy. Your physician will first have to rule out other serious medical conditions. A physical examination is usually where your physician will start. From there, laboratory investigations such as blood tests and electrocardiograms will help pinpoint a diagnosis. A physician or a mental health worker may also perform a psychological evaluation.

The good news about panic attacks is that treatments are very effective. In most cases, the goal of treatment is to reduce or eliminate all of your panic attack symptoms. The two main treatment options for panic attacks are medications and psychotherapy. Many physicians recommend a combination of both treatments.

Medications such as antidepressants are often the first to be prescribed. Popular drugs such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft are widely prescribed for panic attacks. Other medications, such as mild sedatives, may also be recommended by your physician. If one particular medication is not effective in treating your symptoms, your physician may recommend switching to another.

In addition to medications, psychotherapy has been proven to be effective in treating panic attacks. The main type of psychotherapy used to treat this condition is called cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy can help you identify patterns and triggers of your panic attacks. During these sessions, you will learn how to cope with the feelings of anxiety and physical symptoms associated with the attacks.

In recent years, researchers have explored several natural treatments for anxiety disorders. However, two alternative treatments have shown significant potential. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing and meditation may be an effective treatment for some people with panic disorders.

Also, nutritional supplements which aid in the action of serotonin may reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks. It is important to note that these products may cause side-effects and may interact with your other medications. Talk to your physician before taking any natural supplement.

Panic attacks are not a life-threatening condition. However, they can cause major disruptions in a person’s life. Although there is no known way of preventing panic attacks, seeking treatment as soon as possible will stop them from worsening.

So, next time you are sitting in a traffic jam, remember to take a few deep breaths.

Until next month, drive safely.

Dr. Christopher H. Singh runs Trans Canada Chiropractic at the 230 Truck Stop in Woodstock, Ont. He can be reached at 519-421-2024.

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  • The therapy most often used for panic is CBT. However, a new method that has been used successfully with over 10,000 clients is six times more effective. It is taught in the book “Panic Free.”