From out of nowhere, your heart starts pounding furiously, racing as though you’ve just run a mile. Your palms are damp with sweat, you have trouble catching your breath and you feel dizzy, as though you may faint. These are the signs of a panic attack, and while it’s a terrifying experience, it’s not dangerous. However, panic attacks are a symptom of a larger problem that can greatly impact the quality of life, and need to be addressed before they become incapacitating.

A panic attack simulates the feeling of intense fear, even if there is no immediate danger present. It triggers the release of “fight or flight” hormones, which force animals, including humans, to react to life-threatening situations. In most cases, panic attacks happen seemingly for no reason and without warning, often while the sufferer is just going about his or her ordinary day. They can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, and it may take several days for the aftereffects to wear off. The physical sensations tend to resemble those of a heart attack or nervous breakdown, and may be severe enough to force sufferers to seek emergency treatment.

At least 60 million Americans will suffer a panic attack at some point in their lives, contributing to increased health care costs and lost time from work, with women twice as likely to experience one as men.  Though they appear to be triggered without cause, in actuality panic attacks are a psychosomatic response to either tremendous emotional stress or a traumatic event, sometimes occurring months or even years after the event took place.  People who experience a panic attack, particularly more than once, may also suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which may require treatment by a mental health professional.   More than 3 million Americans have panic disorder, which can cause panic attacks on a near-daily basis.  Sufferers of panic disorder may feel as though they’re constantly on the verge of a panic attack, and it can become disruptive enough to prevent them from holding down a job or going to school.

A one-time panic attack with no further issues probably isn’t anything to worry about, though you should take a few moments to reassess your stress level to make sure you’re not overwhelmed.  Often we don’t realize how much stress we’re under until it manifests itself in physical issues such as headaches, fatigue and, yes, the occasional panic attack.  It’s especially important to keep tabs on how you’re feeling emotionally if you’re dealing with a particularly stressful event in your life, such as work difficulties, a loved one’s illness or death, or marital problems. 

If you experience a panic attack more than once within a brief period of time, or find the symptoms so debilitating that they require a trip to the emergency room, a visit to a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders should be considered.  A therapist may be able to help determine the root cause of the panic attacks, as well as what kind of treatment will suit your needs and if medication is required to control them.  He or she may also be able to teach you coping techniques to stave off further panic attacks, such as light meditation, positive self-reassurance (such as telling yourself “this is a panic attack, it will go away”), taking deep breaths and tensing and relaxing the muscles of the body.  If you suffer from frequent panic attacks, you should also consider engaging in such stress-relieving activities as yoga or aerobic exercise, and reduce, if not eliminate entirely, caffeine and alcohol consumption.  The important thing is to seek help.  While a panic attack is not a threat to your physical health, it’s also not just “all in your head” either, and there is no need to continue suffering in silence.

Gena Radcliffe

Medex Supply Blogger

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