Did you see I was in the ER last week?  I’d been shopping at Walmart and started getting all short of breath, chest pressure, heart pounding… I was sure I was having a heart attack.  But they did the work-up, drew some blood, did an EKG, even put me on a treadmill… all totally normal.  They said they thought I’d had a panic attack.  My life isn’t that stressful; why the heck should I be having a panic attack?  Am I going to have another?  That was embarrassing! And terrifying!”

That little description by twenty-something David pulls together some of the symptoms and feelings experienced by someone having a panic attack.  Panic disorder is one of the twelve or so recognized anxiety disorders.  Anxiety disorders are considered the most common mental disorders by the medical establishment with over 40 million Americans suffering from them.

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder in which a person has repeated attacks of intense fear that something bad will happen. The cause is unknown but it is a bit more common if it runs in your family.  Panic disorder is twice as common in women as in men. Usually symptoms begin before age 25, but sometimes not until mid-30s. Even children can have panic disorder.

Panic attacks begin rather suddenly and symptoms usually reach a peak in about 10 minutes and then may last up to an hour or so.  To fit the criteria, a panic attack will include at least 4 of the following symptoms:palpitations, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, feeling of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress, dizziness or lightheadedness, feelings of detachment or unreality, fear of losing control or going crazy, fear of dying, numbness or tingling, chills or hot flashes.  Clearly not a very pleasant list of symptoms to experience.

Also at least one of the attacks is followed by one month or more of either persistent concern about having additional attacks or worry about the consequences of another attack (like going crazy or really having a heart attack), or a significant change of behavior related to the attacks.

So these are unpredictable, frightening, embarrassing episodes that sometimes cause folks to more and more pull back from their normal activities.  Some people end up barely able to leave the house.

Well, what can you do about them?  While there is no quick cure for these, there is quite a lot that can help.  See your doctor about them and he or she can first make sure your symptoms aren’t from something else like heart disease, thyroid disease or one of few other mimickers. If your symptoms really do seem to be pointing to panic disorder, there are several treatment choices.  Certain types of counseling can help you deal with these and keep you from slowly restricting your life.

In addition, there are meds that can treat you at the moment of the attack, although these are somewhat limited as they take a bit longer to get into your system than you would like at that moment.  There are other meds that, when taken regularly, can help prevent the attacks altogether, or at least reduce them.

All this often takes some patience as one approach doesn’t fit everybody.  But it’s worth the effort to keep this frightening but non-deadly specter from shrinking the boundaries of your life.  In reality, it takes some courage to fight panic.