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Panic Attacks

Panic Attacks

For someone who may be experiencing their first panic attack, a call to the doctor's office or 911 is warranted. The idea is to make sure that the cause of the person's distress is not a heart attack, asthma  problem, endocrine emergency, or other dangerous medical condition.

A medical professional is the only person who should make the diagnosis of panic attack. There is no such thing as a "wasted" visit to the doctor in this case. It is better to be told that the diagnosis is panic attack than to assume that someone is panicking and be proved wrong.

Almost everyone experiencing symptoms of a panic attack needs evaluation. Unless the person has a history of having panic attacks, is otherwise healthy, and is experiencing a typical attack, they must be evaluated promptly by a doctor. The level of evaluation depends on many factors. Err on the side of safety when deciding whether to go to a hospital's emergency department.

Even for medical professionals, the diagnosis of panic attack is known as a diagnosis of exclusion. This simply means that before the doctor can be comfortable with the diagnosis of panic attack, all other possible causes need to be considered and ruled out.

Self-Care at Home

Taking care of panic attacks at home is possible, but be careful not to mistake another serious illness (such as a heart attack) for a panic attack. In fact, this is the dilemma that doctors face when people experiencing panic are brought to a hospital's emergency department or the clinic.

If a person has been diagnosed with panic attacks in the past and is familiar with the signs and symptoms, the following techniques may help the person stop the attack. You may also try this for yourself if you are experiencing the symptoms of a panic attack.

  • First, relax your shoulders and become conscious of any tension that you may be feeling in your muscles.
  • Then, with gentle reassurance, progressively tense and relax all the large muscle groups. Tighten your left leg with a deep breath in, for example, hold it, then release the leg muscles and the breath. Move on to the other leg. Move up the body, one muscle group at a time.
  • Slow down your breathing. This may best be done blowing out every breath through pursed lips as if blowing out a candle. Also, place your hands on your stomach to feel the rapidity of your breathing. This may allow you to further control your symptoms.
  • Tell yourself (or someone else if you are trying this technique with someone) that you are not "going crazy." If you are concerned about not being able to breathe, remember that if you are able to talk, you are able to breathe.

If a person is diagnosed with any medical illness, especially heart disease, home treatment is not appropriate. Even if the person has a history of panic attacks, home care is not appropriate if there is any new or worrisome symptom.

Follow-up

After a person is diagnosed with "panic attack," he or she will be given follow-up instructions depending on the entire picture of the illness obtained by the evaluating doctor. Most people are referred for immediate follow–up. Others may be given instructions that follow-up is not needed unless the symptoms return.

Prevention

For those people whose panic attacks are brought about by known stimuli, obviously the idea is to avoid those stimuli. Behavioral therapy is an important part of treatment, and people who have panic attacks may "practice" being in their trigger situations (such as riding an elevator or flying in an airplane) as part of their treatment. For those who go on to be diagnosed with panic disorder or other forms of anxiety, taking the prescribed medications is the key to prevention. Behavioral therapy may also be recommended

Outlook

The prognosis for people who suffer a panic attack is troubling. Some people have 1 attack and are never bothered again. Yet, two-thirds of people experiencing a panic attack go on to be diagnosed with panic disorder. Also, half of those who go through a panic attack will develop clinical depression  within the following year. Occasionally, a person will, after a long evaluation, be diagnosed with a medical condition that causes panic symptoms.

  • Seek medical follow-up. For those who are diagnosed with panic disorder, depression, or another form of anxiety disorder, the news is encouraging. These disorders are usually well controlled with medications. However, many people suffer the effects of these illnesses for years before coming to a doctor for evaluation. These conditions can be extremely disabling, so follow up after the initial visit to the doctor is crucial so that diagnosis and treatment can continue.
  • People who experience panic attacks are not "faking it." They have a real illness. It is important to gain knowledge about the diagnosis to understand and prevent future attacks. As a person comes to recognize the symptoms of panic attack and complies with whatever treatment is eventually recommended, the person can hope to end the panic attacks.
  • Also, recent research indicates that adolescents who experience panic attacks are at increased risk for having thoughts about suicide and even for attempting suicide. This underscores the need to receive a thorough evaluation by a doctor.
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