Everyone has experienced anxiety. We all know the feelings of nervousness. The butterflies in your stomach before a first date, your heart racing when you almost have an accident, your cold clammy hands as you open your credit card bill. Anxiety can be helpful emotion, one that heightens our awareness and to motivate us to act. Many people, however, experience anxiety that interferes with their ability to live their lives effectively. Their anxiety keeps them from achieving their goals and prevents them from being able to feel comfortable. These people are suffering from what is called an anxiety disorder.
When talking about anxiety disorders it is important to realize that there are several different types of anxiety disorders. One of the most common, and the subject of today’s discussion is panic disorder. Over the next several weeks I will address other types of anxiety disorders.
Panic disorder is characterized by “panic attacks”, sudden and overwhelming feelings of terror that frequently occur without warning. These attacks have been described as feeling like one is having a heart attack. Chest pains or tightness, tingling or numbness in the hands, feeling flushed, weak, chilled, dizzy and short of breath are all symptoms associated with a panic attack. The attacks can happen at any time, several in the same week or even the same day. They can be brief (lasting for a few minutes) or in rare cases, last up to an hour. After an attack one often feels emotionally drained and frightened. Because they are so unpredictable, many who suffer from panic attacks experience constant anxiety over when or where their next attack may occur. It is not uncommon for someone with panic disorder to develop some depression also.
Early exposure to appropriate treatment is important for someone suffering from panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. All to often, if left untreated or treated with medication only, individuals develop coping styles that are unhealthy (such as self medication with alcohol or drugs) or create barriers to recovery. As with most mental illnesses, it is generally accepted that the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders is a combination of “talk” therapies and medication. Therapists provide the “talk” therapy, working with the patient to identify the symptoms and possible causes of their anxiety disorder and helping them to learn to react differently to those triggers. A physician or psychiatrist participates in treatment by prescribing and closely monitoring the effectiveness of anti-anxiety medications.