Anxiety and panic attacks
by: Jim Rogers, M.D.
Stress and worry – we can try to avoid them, but they have a way of creeping into our lives. It’s pretty normal to feel occasional anxiety surrounding stressors in our lives but when anxiety interferes with normal daily living it may be time to seek professional help in managing it.
Anxiety is not just nervousness and worry. It manifests in a number of ways and there are a number of disorders that have their roots in anxiety. In addition to general anxiety, some people experience irrational fears, or phobias. Others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder or panic disorder.
Panic disorder is characterized by panic attacks, which come on suddenly. A person may be involved in an ordinary activity when symptoms of anxiety appear. This can include:
• Sweating, trembling and tingling or numbness in the fingers and toes.
• Difficulty breathing, hyperventilation or a sensation of choking or smothering.
• The heart pounds and a person may fear he or she is having a heart attack.
• Feeling faint, dizzy or nauseous.
• An intense feeling of doom or terror. A person may feel they are losing control or are dying.
The fear and dread that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the actual situation, which may or may not involve real or imagined stress.
Panic attacks are usually brief – lasting less than 10 minutes, but they are anything but pleasant. They are twice as common in women as in men and it is estimate the 2.4 million adult Americans suffer from anxiety panic attacks. People who have had one panic attack are more likely to experience another in the future. When attacks occur repeatedly, a person is considered to have the condition of panic disorder.
Another key symptom of the disorder is a persistent fear of having future attacks. This fear can cause a person to avoid places and situations where a prior attack has occurred.
The cause of panic disorder is not known, but researchers suspect it is a combination of biological and environmental factors, including family history. Panic attacks seem to run in families.
Panic disorder is a treatable condition. Often, a combination of methods, including therapy, medication, relaxation and lifestyle changes are used. Therapy addresses emotional responses, identification of triggers, thought patterns and behaviors related to the disorder. Prescription anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications may be used as part of treatment. Learning relaxation techniques, such as yoga or breathing exercises can help to decrease symptoms, as can certain lifestyle changes such as a regular exercise routine, healthy diet, getting enough sleep and decreasing or eliminating caffeine, drugs and alcohol use.
Stress is often the root of our anxiety. Learning to manage stress is a key component of conquering an anxiety disorder. Some tips for decreasing stress include:
• Try to keep a positive attitude by keeping things in perspective. Ask yourself, “How important will this situation be in one month, one year or five years?”
• Understand certain things are beyond your control. Worrying won’t change them.
• Keep a stress journal. Knowing what triggers your anxiety can help you conquer it.
• Don’t over commit. Be realistic about how much time you have and learn to say “No,” to requests that would increase the stress in your life.
• Make time for hobbies and interests you enjoy.
• Make time for people you enjoy. Social support can help decrease stress.
Your primary care physician, a psychologist or other mental health professional can give you more information on ways to deal with stress in your life.
Stress and a certain amount of anxiety are a necessary part of life. When anxiety becomes pervasive and overwhelming, however, there are steps you can take to overcome it. If you experience panic attacks or other symptoms of anxiety that are disruptive to your daily life, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to overcome anxiety and restore calm and peace to your life.
Dr. Rogers is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.