Jack Nicholson does a hilarious job of pretending to suffer from a panic attack in the comedy film “Something's Gotta Give." But for people suffering from this form of anxiety in real life, such an attack is no laughing matter.

When Can Panic Attacks Occur?

Panic attacks can occur anytime and anywhere. Some people are aware of events or circumstances that might trigger an attack, and know how to avoid them or be prepared; most, however, are frequently caught off guard, with little or no warning to alert them.

Fear is a normal response to a threatening situation. A panic attack differs in that it strikes without the presence of a threat or an oncoming attack. It can occur while one is at home, at work, in the middle of a meeting or out shopping at the mall or supermarket—even while asleep.

What are the Symptoms of an Attack?

An individual experiencing an attack will suddenly be overwhelmed by an extreme fear that they are about to suffer or die, accompanied by physical reactions that often mimic a heart-attack: sweating, pounding heart, shortness of breath, chest pain, shaking, dizziness and nausea. Biological symptoms this realistic and terrifying only contribute to an already panicked state, although in reality they are no more dangerous to the body than moderate exercise.

Because the symptoms are so physically taxing, many find themselves rushed to the emergency room. Although physicians need to evaluate patients to rule out serious medical problems, a panic attack is frequently the sole cause for the symptoms.

Attacks generally last for half-an-hour, peaking within 10 minutes and then gradually subsiding. Once over, many feel exhausted and drained from the experience.

Diagnosing Panic Disorder

Some people will suffer one attack in their lifetime and never experience another. Others, though, may experience repeated episodes. In either case, after suffering from their first attack, many develop strong fears that they will have more attacks. Unfortunately for some, that fear is realized.

Panic disorder is diagnosed when an individual experiences frequent attacks unrelated to any particular situation. Excessive worrying about future attacks which lead to behavioral changes and routines to try and ward them off may also signal panic disorder. For instance, a person who avoids people or places associated with a previous attack is exhibiting such behavioral changes. Fears or changes in routines that linger for several weeks usually signal panic disorder.

Treatment Options

Fortunately, treatment for panic disorder is highly effective. Some patients benefit from psychotherapy alone, while others experience full recovery with a combination of medications and psychotherapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in particular has been shown to be successful in helping the patient explore connections between their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Armed with this knowledge, patients can make gradual changes to patterns fundamental to their anxiety.

In general, trained physicians are best suited to determine individual treatment plans based on personal medical histories and frequency and extent of attacks.

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Anne Cameron, MA, LMFT
Vanessa E. Ford, LCSW, CADC


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