Panic attacks or more correctly panic disorder is a mental condition that arises due to a sudden feeling of intense fear without any apparent reason. A person feels that something bad is going to happen, experience “butterflies” in the stomach and associated symptoms yet there is no clear cause. The affected person usually experience rapid heartbeat, suffocation or a feeling as if he is about to die. Panic attacks appear in brief episodes that last for a few minutes, although some symptoms may persist for longer. People who have had a panic attack in the past are more likely to suffer with it than those who have never experienced one. Panic disorder can be effectively managed with medication and at times resolves completely, never to recur later in life.
The panic attack starts suddenly without any particular sign and its symptoms peak within a few minutes. It may appear at any time of the day, even at night when the person is asleep. Some common signs of panic attacks are:
- Unexplained fear of death, failure or threat
- Difficult breathing or chest pain
- Rapid heart rate, sweating or trembling
- Numb hands and feet
- Nausea, headache or dizziness
- Abdominal cramps or difficulty in swallowing
Other diagnostic criteria are elaborately mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-R). Person presenting such attacks often lives in the fear of another attack and usually avoids people or places that could possibly trigger them. Persistent anticipation of fear or danger actually deteriorates the quality of life of the affected individual.
Like most of the other mental conditions, the actual cause of panic disorders is unknown. However, the appearance of panic disorders could be attributed to a variety of factors that includes:
- Stressful conditions at workplace or due to someone’s death or occasions like marriage or pregnancy
- Past experiences of physical trauma or sexual assault or accident
- Genetic defects leading to abnormal brain functioning
For confirmation of panic disorders, other possible causes like heart diseases or thyroid problems should be ruled out. Frequent bouts of such panic attacks may result in severe complications like:
- Social isolation
- Substance or alcohol abuse
- Depression or suicidal tendency
In a few cases panic disorder leads to phobias like agoraphobia, where the person starts avoiding places or situations that initiates fear of being unable to escape from its causes.
Adults and children are equally vulnerable to these attacks. However, women are twice more likely to present panic disorders than men.
The aim of treatment is to overcome the symptoms and resume daily activities. Psychotherapy and medications, both are effective treatment approaches.
Psychotherapy helps understand the causes underlying these panic attacks and makes you learn how to combat them. Making the individuals least affected by the triggers offers best remedial measure. Similar fearful situations are created by the therapist and the patient is frequently exposed to them unless the situations no longer appear frightening to him.
Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines prove beneficial for treating depression and other panic symptoms. Immediate medical help and cognitive therapy prevent the panic attacks from getting worse.