A panic attack is one of the most distressing conditions that a person can experience, and its symptoms can closely mimic those of a heart attack. The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them. Typically, most people who have one attack will have others thus developing a panic disorder. A panic disorder is characterized by recurrent unexpected panic attacks about which there is at least a one month persistent concern about having other panic attacks or worry about the possible implications if another panic attack occurred. Most people with panic attacks experience several of the following symptoms:
- Chest pains
- Stomach upset, lightheadedness, nausea;
- Difficulty breathing, a sense of feeling smothered;
- Tingling or numbness in the hands;
- Hot flashes or chills;
- Dreamlike sensations or perceptual distortions;
- A need to escape;
- Fear of losing control and doing something embarrassing;
- Fear of dying.
These symptoms typically last for several minutes. Once someone has had a panic attack, for example, while driving, shopping in a crowded store, or riding in an elevator, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the pattern of avoidance and level of anxiety about another attack may reach the point where the mere idea of doing things that preceded the first panic attack triggers future panic attacks, resulting in the individual with panic disorder being unable to drive or even step out of the house. At this stage, the person is said to have panic disorder with agoraphobia. Thus, there are two types of panic disorder: panic disorder with or without agoraphobia. Like other major illnesses, panic disorder can have a serious impact on a person’s daily life unless the individual receives effective treatment.
The cause of most panic attacks is not clear, so treatment may be different for each person. Typically, it involves psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and/or medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people learn to deal with panic symptoms, using techniques like muscle and breathing relaxation. Alternative treatments like meditation and relaxation therapy are often used to help relax the body and relieve anxiety.
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