A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear or dread, as if something terrible is going to happen, although there is no danger present.
They can include symptoms including heart palpitations, or increased heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath or feeling like you are choking; shaking, numbness and tingling, chest pressure or pain, nausea, dizziness or feeling weak.
These symptoms and signs, are also often accompanied by feelings of emotional upset and distress, and an inability to calm yourself down; feeling that you need to escape or that you are in grave danger; or feeling that things are surreal or feeling detached.
While some of the symptoms of a panic attack are similar to other anxiety symptoms, it is the intensity and duration of the symptoms that makes a panic attack different.
While the physical signs and symptoms of panic attacks may be mistaken for serious medical problems such as a heart attack, although panic attacks typically leave you feeling tired or exhausted, they are not physically harmful or dangerous.
The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop very quickly and usually at their worst within 10 minutes, and most last for about 20 to 30 minutes, although this can vary from a few seconds to many hours.
Panic attacks are surprisingly common in the community, with up to 40% of the population suffering a panic attack at some time in their lives.
For those who suffer, they can occur several times a day, or only once every few years, and they can come on at any time, even while feeling calm and relaxed and can even occur during sleep, waking you up during the attack.
What is Panic Disorder?
Panic disorder, is an anxiety disorder, where panic attacks occur on a regular and unexpected basis, and the worry about having another attack, or the implications of a panic attack, causes significant changes in behavior.
What is the cause of Panic Disorder?
There is no single cause for panic disorder, although exposure to long-term chronic stress, is a primary risk factor.
In addition to exposure to long term chronic stress, other factors include:
- Family history – where studies have shown there are genetic influences on panic disorder, with a hereditary link between generations and a family history of depression and anxiety disorders.
- Medical conditions – where patients with medical conditions, including cardiac disease, diabetes, respiratory disorders such as asthma, thyroid problems such as hyperthyroidism, chronic pain or irritable bowel syndrome, and alcohol withdrawal, or drug abuse or withdrawal, are known to also suffer from panic disorder.
It’s interesting to note the common thread of “stress” with each of these risk factors – where long term stress, both has a causal link with these medical conditions, plus, patients suffering any long term, significant illness are also subject themselves to significant levels of stress.
Another example of the “cycle-of-stress” as a cause of physiological damage.
How to treat and prevent panic attacks?
For sufferers of panic attacks, there are two key considerations:
- minimizing (or even eliminating) their occurrence, and secondly;
- minimizing the effect of the symptoms of the panic attacks when they occur.
Research has been carried out to test the cortisol levels of panic disorder patients immediately before and after a panic attack episode, with a view to suggesting that it is the response to a specific incident that brings on the panic attack.
Across a range of published findings, approximately 2/3 of the findings showed elevated levels of cortisol in patients with panic disorder.
Specific research has identified that patients with panic attacks inherit a particularly sensitive central nervous system fear mechanism and both heritable factors and stressful life events are responsible for the onset of panic disorder.
The broader research findings consistently point to the ongoing/long term exposure to chronic stress and the activation of the body’s Stress Engine, as a consistent causal factor for panic disorder.
In most people, treatment can be very effective in reducing both the severity of symptoms and the frequency of occurrence of panic attacks.
While medication and psychotherapy are common treatment strategies, the use of stress management and specific breath control techniques, have been highly successful at eliminating or reducing the occurrence of the attacks, while also reducing the severity of symptoms.
Breathing Techniques as a Treatment
A symptom of the majority of panic attacks is rapid breathing or hyperventilation, which acts to multiply the feelings of panic and the sensations of a pounding heart and dizziness.
In addition, further research has shown that many of those suffering panic attacks, have a permanently different breathing pattern to those who don’t suffer.
Given this, a technique/system was developed and then implemented in clinical trials at Stanford University, where panic attack and panic disorder patients, were taught how to adjust their breathing patterns.
The end result of the trials, were that these breathing techniques were successful in reducing panic attacks, with 68% of patients having no further panic attacks, 12 months after the treatment.
Similar trials also show significant reduction in symptoms, in 80+% of participants.
Meditation based Stress Management as Treatment
We’ve seen the research that identifies exposure to long term stress as one cause of panic disorder, so given this, our ability to lower the impact of stress on our body, is key to reducing the onset and frequency of panic attacks.
Specific research into the effectiveness of meditation based stress management compared with anxiety disorder education program, in patients with anxiety disorder, has shown clear results.
Compared with the education group, the meditation based stress management group showed significant improvement in scores on all anxiety scales.
Further research also showed a mindfulness based program used in conjunction with pharmaceutical drugs as a treatment for patients with panic disorder, clearly showed a significant decrease in the panic attack frequency and symptom severity, when compared with patients taking medication only.