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Panic Attacks (Panic Disorder)

What are panic attacks?
Panic attacks or symptoms of panic disorder are characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness or abdominal distress.

What are the varieties?
Panic attacks can range from mild to severe, and can occur infrequently or on a regular basis. It is not unusual for a person with panic disorder to develop phobias about places or situations where panic attacks have occurred, such as in supermarkets or while driving. If the frequency of panic attacks increases, the person may begin to avoid those situations all together, fearing another attack may occur and help would not be immediately available. This avoidance may eventually develop into agoraphobia, an inability to go beyond known and safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety.

What are the causes of panic attacks?
Although scientific research has been conducted on the condition for many years, the exact cause or causes of panic disorder remain unknown. However, several factors may play a role in the onset of panic disorder:

  • Heredity
  • A tendency toward exaggerated awareness of normal bodily reactions
  • Stressful life events

Who is likely to get panic attacks?
About 1.7 percent of the adult U.S. population ages 18 to 54 – approximately 2.4 million people – experience symptoms of panic disorder in a given year. Women are twice as likely as men to develop panic disorder, and it typically first occurs in young adulthood. Roughly half of all people who have panic disorder develop the condition before age 25.

What are the symptoms of panic attacks?

  • Palpations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
  • Feeling detached from oneself or feelings of unreality
  • Fear of losing control or of going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Chills or hot flashes

How are panic attacks diagnosed?
To make a formal diagnosis of panic disorder, a person must experience either four panic attacks within a four-week period, or one or more attacks followed by at least a month of persistent fear of having another attack. During one of those attacks a minimum of four of the above noted symptoms must reach a peak within 10 minutes.

What is the conventional treatment of panic attacks?
Antidepressant medications are commonly prescribed to help improve or eliminate the symptoms of panic attacks. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also often recommended.

What therapies does Dr. Weil recommend for panic attacks?
Dr. Weil recommends the following to help reduce symptoms associated with panic attacks:

  • Breathing exercises. One of the best single anti-anxiety measures, controlling breathing and breath work can offer an immediate lessening of symptoms
  • Mind-body techniques such as biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help to encourage healthy coping skills.
  • Seeking professional counseling.

How can panic attacks be prevented?
Following the practices of a healthy lifestyle can help, including eating well and getting regular exercise. Using mind-body approaches and relaxation techniques to reduce stress and anxiety can also help keep you centered and minimize the impact of panic attacks.