August 21, 2012

When Panic Attacks

We use the term "panic" all the time, saying we panicked at our job interview, or had a panic attack when our child wandered into the street, but what do psychologists mean when they talk about panic attacks or panic disorder?

Panic isn't the nervousness you feel the morning of your presentation at work, the stress you feel when you're running late for an appointment, or the anxiety you feel when your partner is mad at you. A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear, accompanied by a flood of physiological symptoms; it develops abruptly and usually lasts no more than fifteen minutes. It may be triggered by something specific (e.g., public speaking, enclosed spaces, a stressful thought), or may come out of the blue.

The DSM defines a panic attack as a discrete period of intense fear, in which at least four of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reach a peak within ten minutes:

Physiological symptoms: palpitations, pounding heart, or increased heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; shortness of breath or a feeling of smothering; a feeling of choking; chest pain or discomfort; nausea; feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint; chills or hot flushes; and numbness or tingling, often in the extremities. Psychological symptoms: fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy; and derealization or depersonalization, i.e., feeling unreal, disembodied, or detached from your surroundings.

What does a panic attack feel like?

It feels like terror in your belly, an elephant sitting on your chest, and going crazy. Your heart feels like it's pounding out of your chest, the room seems to be closing in, and you can't breathe. Many people experiencing panic are convinced they're having a heart attack--in fact, over 40% of individuals who show up the emergency room with chest pain are actually suffering from a panic attack. On top of the discomfort of the physiological symptoms of panic, the feeling of derealization can make panic lonely and confusing because what's happening in your mind doesn't match what's happening in the external world; it's hard to understand why other people seem to be calmly and happily going about their business when, for you, the world seems to be ending.

A panic attack is not a DSM diagnosis, but panic disorder is. Panic disorder is diagnosed when recurrent panic attacks result in persistent concern about further attacks, worry about the consequences or implications of the attacks, or significant change in behaviour for fear of future attacks (e.g., refusing to give presentations at work, declining social invitations). At worst, individuals with panic disorder develop agoraphobia--the fear of being out in public, or in a place where they could panic--and begin to avoid crowded public spaces, or avoid leaving the home at all.

A panic attack can happen in the context of panic disorder, depression, or another psychological problem, or can simply be an isolated incident during a stressful period or situation. During a panic attack, it's not important to try to figure out what happened or what's wrong; instead, just focus on breathing slowly and trying to calm down. It can help to realize that you're having a panic attack and to remember that thinking you're going crazy and thinking you're having a heart attack are symptoms of panic. If you experience recurrent panic attacks, it may be time to see your doctor or consult a psychologist. Panic is eminently treatable and responds well to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), among other treatments.


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