What Are Panic Attacks?


Panic Attacks suddenly overtake the person with a sense of imminent doom, death or destruction. They normally strike outside the home, and the person feels they are in a life-threatening situation from which escape is necessary. This life-threatening situation may be medical (heart attack) or natural (earthquake) or an act of war (a nuclear explosion). Although the timing of the Panic Attacks is unpredictable, there may be situational stressors that set them off on a regular basis. These are called situational panic attacks. Situational Panic Attacks are indicative of social and specific phobias. Panic Attacks that appear without any specific cues are more likely to be indicative of Panic Disorder.

panic disorder is defined as having recurrent panic attacks with no situational key, and persistent worry about future attacks, change in behavior related to the attacks, or a worry about the implication of the attacks. There is also the possibility of having panic disorder with Agoraphobia, which means that the client has a fear of being in places from which escape is difficult, and situations such as travel are restricted.

Panic Attacks affect 2.6% of people over their lifetime, with 2 – 3 times more women than men, and it is most common between the ages of 16 and 40. It may be genetically bound, as there is a 20% risk of having Panic Attacks if a 1st degree relative has panic attacks.

Physically, the heart begins to pound, the victim may scream. Most feel as if they are not getting enough air and gasp, hyperventilate, feel dizzy and lightheaded. Most attacks last 3 to 10 minutes, with 30 minutes being the general longest they may last. Each person will have their own set of symptoms, and they usually remain the same. Additionally, depression affects up to 50% of those with Panic Attacks.

Panic Attacks are caused by a number of different items in the environment: drugs, caffeine, and postpartum period. Caffeine can cause Panic Attacks, as does marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines. women with thyroid disorder may experience their first panic attack in the immediate postpartum period after delivering a child.

Treatment of Panic Attacks is through psychosocial treatment and explanation of how the attacks occur, and reassurance that the attacks are not life threatening, and not a precursor to insanity. Pharmacologically, some antidepressants can be utilized, such as Tofranil and Prozac for long-term treatment, and Benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Ativan for short-term use in acute attacks.

Derek Wood is a Nationally Board Certified Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse, and holds a Master's degree in Psychology. His experience in the online arena of mental health can be traced back to 1997, when he was a host for Online Psych on AOL. He joined Get Mental Help, Inc. as Clinical Content Director for Mental Health Matters. Derek, with his wife Lisa, developed the original version of psychTracker (then called A Mood Journal), after his diagnosis with Schizo-Affective Bipolar, when they could not find a system available that was robust enough to help him effectively manage his symptoms and accurately interpret his charting. Derek has worked in the field of mental health since 2001, as a Unit Manager of an adult long-term treatment facility, a charge nurse in an adolescent short-term inpatient facility and long-term residential facility, and as a School Psychologist. He has also written several articles which are being used as CEU for nurses and educators.

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