Has anxiety and panic attacks compromised your life?
Peace of mind and personal happiness may elude sufferers who deal with significant anxiety or panic attacks. You may discover that you are one of the many who find these issues replacing life plans, career, social and personal needs with pain and fear. Then you watch a TV commercial, hear a radio advertisement or read ads offering products, pills and all types of remedies for relief. Amidst all this, how do you sensibly choose the best way to get help or relief?
Barbara* a 30-year-old radiology technician, walking to her bus stop after work, was startled by an unexpected, overwhelming feeling of terror and panic. She felt flushed, lightheaded and dizzy. There was a weird sensation of chest constriction and difficulty breathing. Her heart raced and pounded in her chest. Thoughts of dying, losing control, or of going crazy flashed through her mind. With each wave of fear, her heart began to pound even louder. Her hands now felt sweaty, numb and tingling. There was a sense of unreality about things. A friend, noticing her distress, approached, and helped her to a bench near the bus stop. Over the next 5 to 10 minutes the feelings gradually subsided. Feeling some relief, but still shaky, her friend helped her to the nearby hospital emergency room. *(To protect confidentiality, the above is a composite of some clinical experiences and does not represent an actual person or any prior patients).
Barbara had just suffered a panic attack – a type of severe anxiety.
Unlike the brief and mild anxiety caused by a stressful event, the more severe anxiety disorders are serious medical illnesses. These affect approximately 40 million adults, 18% of the population, age 18 years and older — one in four adults in the U.S., at least once during their lifetime. Anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, about one-third of the country’s $148 billion mental health budget. An estimated 75% of people with an anxiety disorder have at least one other accompanying psychiatric condition. See: http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
These disorders cause overwhelming, even debilitating, anxiety and fear that can become worse if not treated. Less than 30% of individual with these problems seek treatment, and many go undiagnosed by their primary care physicians. Common signs and symptoms of anxiety include muscle tension, trembling, fast heartbeat, fast or troubled breathing, dizziness or impaired concentration, palpitations, sweating, fatigue, irritability, and sleep disturbances.
Panic disorder, a type of severe anxiety, is estimated to affect over two million adult Americans, and is twice as common in women then in men. The lifetime prevalence of panic disorder in the U.S. ranges from 1.5% to 3.5%. Symptoms of a panic attack include feelings of terror that suddenly strikes. An episode can occur as a one-time event only or can repeatedly happen, triggered by something remembered or appear without warning — out of the blue. Panic can cause waking at night; a pounding or racing heart; sweaty, nausea, numbness, tingling, weakness, faint or dizzy feeling. There can also be a sense of unreality; chest pain; fear of impending doom, of going crazy, of losing control; and avoidance of going to certain places. See: Advances in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders
Panic attacks are both unique and common.
As many as 20% of American’s are affected at least once in their lifetime. Considered one of the most distressing conditions that a person can experience, early recognition and proper treatment are important. Many of the symptoms reported by Barbara above are typical of panic attacks and are considered to be major health problem in the U.S..
Panic is different from fear and other types of anxiety – as panic attacks are unexpected. They are often unprovoked, appear suddenly and increase in intensity over a 5 to 10 minute period, peaks and then rapidly goes away over 20-30 minute period. These episodes can be disabling. One explanation for the cause of the panic disorder is the bodies normal alarm system of mental and physical responses to an actual threat, which triggers and activates to a non-actual threat. Panic increases in severity by hyperventilation or focusing on catastrophic thoughts or fears.
Panic disorder – as in most types of anxiety – affects women more than men, often begins in the 20’s and 30’s, and appears to be more common in some families. Sometimes an initial episode might be related to some identified causal or contributing factors:
- Actual or transient medical problem as a middle ear infection, allergies, mitral valve prolapse (often a mild dysfunction of this heart valve closure), hyperthyroidism, low blood sugar
- Earlier life history of significant trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder
- Medications use or withdrawal, stimulant or substance use, or abuse (caffeine, alcohol, opiates, etc.) in a predisposed person who is vulnerable to panic attacks
- Life events involving major stress, losses, threats of loss or the feelings of increase vulnerability may precede attacks
The panic disorder once rooted can become recurrent and chronically disabling.
If the panic attack occurs in a specific setting, as in a store or car, irrational fears or phobias about these situations, may occur. If a person begins to avoid these situations, he (or she) can become increasingly housebound, unable to drive and develop agoraphobia (fear of public place) in addition to the panic attacks. If the person doesn’t receive effective early treatment, major incapacitation may develop.
Panic disorder mimics many other medical conditions, and it is not unusual for the sufferer to be seen by a multitude of other medical or health-related services before receiving appropriate treatment. They will often go through extensive testing at great cost. The reassurance that “nothing is wrong that’s serious,” or “it’s all in your head,” doesn’t help. Medical personnel – not familiar with the potential ravaging effect and disability caused by the illness – often treat panic disorder lightly. Treatment of panic is often done with a mild tranquilizer or just reassurance. Dr. Weissman and Associates on November 2, 1989, New England Journal of Medicine, clearly point out the need for concern. Compared with other psychiatric condition, untreated panic disorder has an increased risk of suicidal ideation. There is an almost three-fold increase in actual suicide attempts, independent of coexistence of major depression, alcohol or drug abuse or agoraphobia.
Recovery starts with the person deciding to seek help, treatment and a more life-affirming path. Hindrances that may need attention early on could include:
- Medical illness
- Developmental impairments
- Dysfunctional patterns of behavior
- Rigid beliefs
- Lack of social support.
Change happens with:
- Willingness for self-examination without blaming or taking the victim’s role
- A commitment to positive action and to the beneficial treatments that are available
- Gaining awareness and opening up to new knowledge
- Becoming a more discerning consumer of health information and available care
- Developing the motivation to take effective action for necessary changes
Holistic approaches to anxiety and panic may include a combination of:
- Combination of conventional medications
- Lifestyle modifications and life skill education
- Alternative holistic treatments
- Targeted nutritional applications
- Psychotherapeutic interventions
- Enhancement of awareness and spiritual practice
Through an integrative approach, individuals can gain direction, move past the immobilization of misinformation and erroneous beliefs, and find possible solutions for their adverse health conditions.
Article by Ron Parks, MD and edited by Shan Parks September 2015
What is your next step to help yourself or others that seemed troubled with anxiety or panic? See next post — “Best Treatment of Panic and Anxiety?”