Almost 6 million Americans suffer from panic disorder, incapacitating anxiety attacks that, for the most part, strike out of the blue. For decades, doctors have believed the disorder to be a psychological ailment, an overreaction to stress or a forgotten past event. However, recent research indicates that panic disorder may not be a disease of the mind, but rather a disease of the body, an inherited abnormality of brain chemistry. And there are drugs that appear to be effective against the attacks for many victims.In a panic attack, adrenaline is released into your bloodstream. A message of fear sends a signal to the adrenal glands that there is an emergency. The adrenal glands are pea-sized organs that sit on top of your kidneys. They are filled with adrenaline that, when released into your body, gives you heightened abilities to respond to emergency situations. We all experience a response like that when were faced with a dangerous situation. Thats natural and normal. But panic disorder comes usually with no warning and for no apparent reason. People with it suffer a wide range of symptoms, including breathlessness, palpitations, chest pains, choking sensations, dizziness and feelings of unreality, tingling of the hands or feet, hot and cold flashes, sweating, faintness, trembling, and strong fears of dying, of going crazy, or doing something uncontrollable.
Because the symptoms are so diverse, the condition has gone under many names: anxiety hysteria, anxiety neurosis, phobic anxiety state, hyperventilation syndrome, and atypical depression, among others. Panic disorder almost always develops in the late teens or early twenties and tends to run in families. About four out of five sufferers are women. Unless its treated it can last a lifetime and increase in intensity and frequency as its victims age. For example, as those sufferers who have a fear of leaving the house (agoraphobia) get older, the fear increases and the senior may become completely housebound.
Psychotherapy has been useful in treating panic disorder. Minor tranquilizers too, and in complex cases, anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs may also work. Reducing panic attacks through medication improves the chances of subsequent treatment like behavior therapy.
OTHER WAYS TO DEAL WITH PANIC ATTACKS
Learn and Practice Relaxation Techniques:
For example, fear of driving or riding an elevator, is fed by anxiety. By learning and practicing relaxation techniques, you will be able to reduce the level of your anxiety and panic attacks. You may even be able to defuse an attack in the making. Relax by taking slow, deep, complete breaths. Calm yourself by remembering that you are only having a panic attack and that nothing more serious is happening to you. Breathing slowly and deeply will relax your body, which is the first step to reversing the release of adrenaline.
Keep Stress in Check: Try to koeep stress to a minimum. Stress and anxiety seem to go hand in hand - increase one and the other will follow. Learn and Practice Systematic Desensitization: Systematic desensitization usually starts with imagining yourself in a progression of fearful situations and using relaxation strategies that compete with anxiety. Once you can successfully manage your anxiety while imagining fearful events, you can use the technique in real life situations. The goal of the process is to become gradually desensitized to the triggers that are causing your distress.By all means, speak with your doctor about your panic attacks. Your physician may recommend you visit a specialist who may prescribe medications and offer coping skills. Remember, you can free yourself from crippling anxiety no matter how long it has been with you. Theres no need to take fear for granted.Robin Westen is ThirdAges medical reporter. Check for her daily updates. She is the author of Relationship Repair.See what others have to say about this story or leave a comment of your own.