Panic attacks are unmistakable. You're involved in some ordinary aspect of life when suddenly your heart begins to pound and you hyperventilate, sweat, and tremble. You fear you are having a heart attack, going crazy, or even dying. Then, 10 minutes or so later, it's gone. What just happened?
Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. You have had a panic attack. Panic attacks are fairly common, usually beginning between ages 15 and 25. If you have recurrent panic attacks, a persistent fear of subsequent attacks occurring, or if you change your behavior significantly because of such attacks, you have panic disorder. Between attacks, sufferers live in dread of the next one.
Since you were recently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, ask your doctor these questions at your next visit.
What are my treatment options for anxiety?
Are there any underlying medical problems that could be causing my anxiety symptoms?
Will I need to take an anxiety drug? If so, for how long?
What side effects can I expect from medications?
Can I do anything to prevent these medication side effects?
Should I begin therapy sessions? Which type?
How long before I can exp...
Many people with panic disorder relate an attack to what they were doing when it occurred. They may assume that the restaurant, elevator, or classroom caused the attack, and decide to avoid that situation. In these cases, panic disorder may lead to agoraphobia -- the fear of leaving home or being in public places -- though the relationship between the two conditions is unclear.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
The underlying cause of panic attacks and panic disorder is not clear. There is evidence of both a genetic and a biochemical basis. There is also an association with phobias, such as school phobia or agoraphobia, as well as with depression, alcohol or cigarette abuse, suicide risk, and seasonal affective disorder -- a type of depression that occurs only during winter months.
The sudden feeling of terror or doom often brings on hyperventilation -- uncontrollable, rapid, shallow breathing. This in itself can cause many of the other physical symptoms by upsetting the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.
Panic disorder may begin after a serious illness or accident, the death of a close friend, separation from the family, or the birth of a baby. Attacks may also accompany the use of mind-altering drugs. Most often, however, a panic attack comes "out of the blue." It may even begin during sleep.
Some medical problems and medications can cause panic attacks, including some antidepressants at high dosage. Panic disorder that begins after age 40 suggests depression or another underlying medical disorder.
SOURCES: American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th ed. 2000. Multiple Authors, New Insights into Panic Disorder, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Volume 66 Supplement #4, 2005. Shipkko, s. Surviving Panic Disorder: What You Need to Know. Authorhouse, October 1, 2003.