Northwest Health Summer 2011

Emotional Health

Physical Symptoms May Signal a Panic Attack

An accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath, chest pain, and sweating may signal a panic attack. While frightening, theses can be treated.

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You may be at home, in your car, or out taking a walk. All of a sudden, you experience an accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath, chest pain, and sweating. You've never had these scary symptoms before, and you're not sure what's going on.

These are signs of a panic attack, but if you've never had one, you may think you're having a heart attack. To make matters more confusing, panic attacks seem to strike out of the blue with no apparent trigger.

If you experience symptoms of a panic attack, first make sure nothing is physically wrong. "Chest pain or shortness of breath that doesn't improve after a few minutes of rest, or abdominal pain that doesn't respond to antacids needs to be checked by a doctor to rule out physical illness," says Christine Fordyce, MD, a personal physician at Group Health Medical Centers Northgate clinic.

"Panic attacks can mimic more serious medical conditions, including heart attacks, thyroid problems, and lung conditions. Always see a provider to clarify the diagnosis and develop a clear care plan to manage the symptoms," advises Dr. Fordyce. Recurrent panic attack sufferers usually learn to identify the symptoms with the help of a therapist, and don't need to get medically checked out each time they have an attack, she says.

Causes and Treatment

For some people who have a panic attack, it will be a one-time occurrence. For others — about 3 percent to 4 percent of the population — the attacks will happen again and again and even begin to hamper everyday life. Recurring panic attacks are diagnosed as panic disorder, says Tobias Dang, MD, a psychiatrist with Group Health Behavioral Health Services. People who experience them may avoid situations they think might trigger an attack, such as going out with friends or driving.

Why some people get panic attacks has been linked to certain factors. "A genetic predisposition to anxiety combined with stressful life events increases your chances of having an attack," says Dr. Dang. "These stressful life events may include a combination of medical conditions like asthma or heart problems, nonsupportive family environments, and jobs or relationships that cause high levels of stress. In addition, using substances like alcohol or illegal drugs may increase the likelihood of panic attacks."

A behavioral health specialist can help you reduce the effects of panic attacks or make them go away completely. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most frequent treatment, helping you to understand how your thoughts and feelings influence your behavior. It helps you to better manage stressful situations and respond to them in a more effective way.

"We work to determine why the attacks are occurring, to help the patient acquire relaxation techniques, and identify early warning signs to help prevent future attacks," explains Dr. Dang. In conjunction with therapy, exercise and adequate sleep are helpful. Medication is also a possibility if attacks are frequent and severe.

As scary as panic attacks are, it's good to keep in mind that you can't die from an attack. And if you do have them, treatment can help you cope and reclaim your peace of mind.

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