The symptoms are: A sudden sensation of dread. Your heart races, you perspire, and have trouble catching your breath. You feel dizzy and very frightened. You feel as if you need air and you are unable to calm yourself (Frances, & First, 1998).
What physically happens during an anxiety attack? Certain organs are geared up, causing increased heart rate and breathing. Other organs are turned off. You feel sick to your stomach because blood is temporarily diverted from your digestive track. Some of the symptoms, lightheadedness, numbness, shortness of breath, are the result of breathing too quickly and shallowly. Sweating results from the temporary gearing up of all your metabolic functions. Pupils can dilate to sharpen your visual acuity. You are ready for fight or flight (Frances, & First, 1998).
People who have panic attacks may have a low body threshold for triggering the fight or flight response so it goes off without reason. Another cause may be that some individuals have an extra sensitivity to any unusual body sensation and a panic attack is triggered by minor events even when the heart skips a beat or breathing becomes a bit labored. The severity and frequency of panic attacks varies widely from person to person (Frances, & First, 1998).
A number of substances cause panic attacks by their direct effects upon the body or when the body is withdrawing from the substances. Panic attacks can be caused by taking any type of stimulant including diet pills, decongestants, amphetamines, cocaine, and caffeine. Panic attacks can disappear once the stimulant is stopped (Frances, & First, 1998). Substances taken to reduce anxiety such as alcohol, sleeping pills or tranquilizers can cause withdrawal panic attacks when their use is cut down or stopped suddenly. Panic attacks can also be caused by medical conditions such as an overactive thyroid, adrenal glands, asthma or heart arrhythmia. About twenty five percent of the general population experiences a panic attack at some point in their lives. If you are having frequent panic attacks, you need to take action (Frances, & First, 1998).
What is the treatment for panic attacks? Some antianxiety medications have a quick positive effect. Unfortunately all are potentially addictive at the dosage required. Once you start, it is often difficult to stop, because the withdrawal symptoms perfectly mimic what it is like to have a panic attack.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can teach you how to prevent uncomfortable sensations from escalating into a full-blown panic attack. Cognitive therapy takes longer and is more work, but the techniques, once learned, can be applied indefinitely and used in other parts of your life such as managing the dysfunctional thinking that maintains addiction. Sometimes, anxiety disorders require a combination of medication and cognitive therapy (Frances, & First, 1998).