Face your fear of panic

Can you remember the last time you felt panic?

Sudden fear accompanied by intense physical symptoms: racing heart, sweaty palms, body shakes, dizziness or shortness of breath.

Panic attacks occur when you experience brief, but intense periods of anxiety. Many people will experience a panic attack at some point in life, but for some with panic disorder, they can be recurring throughout adult life.

Physical symptoms such as the ones described above are common in a panic attack and people often believe they are experiencing a heart attack or other serious illness. Many feel they are losing control or going crazy.

Of course, the body’s natural fight or flight response is very helpful in dangerous situations, but people with panic disorder have sudden attacks for little or no reason. The level of fear is not appropriate to the situation and is often completely unrelated or unprovoked.

Usually, panic attacks subside after a few minutes, but recurring attacks can go on for hours. They are terrifying and physically exhausting.

Panic disorder occurs when attacks are recurrent and at least one attack is followed by a month or more of concern about having more attacks, worry about the implications of the attack or a significant change in behaviour (such as avoiding activities).

Approximately one in 75 individuals will develop panic disorder and it is usually a chronic illness that lasts throughout a person’s adult life. It is treatable, but often takes a long time to diagnose because the physical symptoms tend to mimic other serious illnesses.

Panic attacks in themselves are not dangerous, but they are very frightening and make it nearly impossible to function in certain situations. Also, individuals with panic disorder often develop phobias, depression, substance abuse and other complications.

Cognitive behaviour therapy is typically very effective in treating panic disorder. This kind of therapy helps individuals understand their symptoms and learn techniques to lessen their effects. The most important element of this treatment is to eliminate avoidance behaviour, which can become more debilitating than the actual panic attacks.

I encourage people with panic attacks to deliberately seek out the situations they usually avoid such as crowded stores, the mall or certain driving conditions. If they do one of these and feel anxious they should try to remain there until the anxiety begins to lessen rather than escape or take ativan.

Medications, such as newer anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications, can also be helpful when used appropriately to reduce anxiety and prevent future panic attacks. Medications such as benzodiazepines are often prescribed to be taken in the moment to relieve anxiety.

This is not a helpful strategy as it encourages a psychological dependency on the pills when what is desired is the ability to continue daily routines regardless of the possibility of a panic attack.

Some lifestyle tips such as getting enough sleep and exercise and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine can also help to minimize anxiety. Alcohol should also be avoided and relaxation techniques may also be helpful for those with anxiety.

Stress is often an unavoidable part of life, but it is important to find ways to cope with it.

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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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