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Panic Attacks

Panic attack symptoms and treatment

Panic attacks are very common, yet elusive to diagnose and treat. Most people will experience a panic attack or two at some point. Yet others will suffer from them on a consistent and regular basis, to a point where they become debilitating. Panic disorder is now recognized as a legitimate medical condition and can be treated, but first they have to be diagnosed.

Panic attacks can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime; and symptoms are many and varied. They can include:

  • weakness
  • dizziness
  • intense perspiration or hot flashes
  • chills
  • rapid heart beat
  • chest pain
  • shaky legs
  • tingling or numbness in extremities
  • feelings of suffocation
  • fear of losing control
  • an overwhelming sense of doom
  • paralyzing fear

Sometimes panic attacks are paired with an event such as public speaking, or are preceded by a feeling of anxiety. Because there are as many triggers for the attacks as there are people, it is hard to create a blueprint for recognizing them. Your family physician can help you diagnose panic disorder and will often times refer you to a mental health professional to begin treatment. Left untreated, panic attacks can morph into phobias, depression and even suicide.

Who suffers from repeated panic attacks and why? Though anyone can experience panic attacks there are certain factors which can predispose an individual to panic disorder:

  • childhood abuse
  • history of a family member with panic disorder
  • response to a serious and uncontrollable event such as rape or an accident
  • serious illness or death of a loved one
  • significant stress
  • major life changes

Families of panic disorder patients need to understand the condition and what they can do to help. It is paramount they do not belittle the trauma panic attacks can have on their victims. By the same token, they have to be on guard not to become enablers while trying to be supportive.

Panic attacks are very treatable and most sufferers live productive lives. Course of treatment varies but will often include medication and some form of cognitive and behavioral therapy. Patients suffering from panic attacks are often taught breathing exercises and mental imaging to help them consciously relax. Simple changes in lifestyle can also be very effective in helping to contain panic attacks. Almost any kind of exercise is stress reducing and so panic reducing as well. Dietary considerations are also very important. Food and beverages high in caffeine can cause nervousness and tension. Many sufferers find that avoiding sugar and other high carbohydrate foods keeps their blood sugar levels stable and reduces the number and severity of attacks.

It is very comforting for panic attack victims to understand the condition and how widespread it is. Many patients have a fear they are "going crazy" and are relieved to find that their feelings and responses are absolutely normal and predictable. Understanding these issues and being able to change the way they think about themselves and their condition is the first step toward recovery. The next step is helping to identify triggers which will set off the attacks. It is also helpful to talk with fellow panic attack patients, and there are many support groups available including Internet chat rooms and message boards. Progress is dependent on the individual's willingness to follow the prescribed course of treatment and to understand that changes will occur slowly. Those who are patient and committed to their treatment plan, usually see significant improvement over the first year.

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