Panic Attack!

Stress responses in the body help us to persevere in adversity. However, irrational terror is no fun, however you look at it. If it becomes a habit, it is debilitating.

Any of the following symptoms may have been your portion: sweating; shortness of breath; heart palpitations; chest discomfort; unsteady feelings; choking or smothering clostrophobic sensations; tingling; hot or cold flashes; faintness; trembling; feelings of unreality; fears of losing control; dying or going crazy. When four of these symptoms occur in familiar situations or settings that have no danger your body has triggered a false emergency alarm.

Phobic avoidance is the term used when one avoids common places and activities due to the fear of having an attack and losing control – an understandable though unhealthy and irrational fear of panic attacks. Anticipatory anxiety is the outcrop of this situation with the constant threat of not knowing when or where an attack will occur. Ultimately, a nagging feeling of anxiety and fear pervades the person’s very existence.

Dementor Attack

J.K. Rowling addressed the primal fear of fear in her Harry Potter series. The characters she used to personify fear were called Dementors, entities which fed on people’s happiness, leaving only fear, terror and sadness in their wake. Harry feared these more than his mortal enemy Voldemort.

Professor Lupin pointed out the wisdom of this perspective: Harry stood up to fear by focusing on all the love he had for others and the love they had for him. He came out victorious as he learned the greatest weapon was to give himself (his life) for his friends.

Agoraphobia “fear of the marketplace” makes people house-bound avoiding public places from which escaping or gaining help might be difficult, and strangely to a fear of being alone. Some manage to leave home only when accompanied by a trusted friend or family member. Many objects and situations are irrationally feared.

A less familiar phenomenon are the “city-bound” executives who travel in fixed patterns from home to work but cannot deviate. They avoid leaving town. The issue is chronic, distressing and restrictive.

Depression and its complications are a potential threat to those who suffer phobias.

Panic disorder in Canada costs millions of dollars annually in health care expenses in disability benefits and lost wages. It has been confused with heart attack, respiratory problems and schizophrenia. Some give up hope of ever getting better.

Proper diagnosis enables one to enter into appropriate behaviour therapy and/or medication. The mind-body connection is quite evident in this malady.

Hierarchical desensitization/supported exposure gradually exposes the afflicted person to the phobic situation which is found to be so terrifying accompanied by a trained therapist, former phobic, family member or therapy dog to help with the supported exposure process.

The afflicted is taught to develop mental distance from the anxiety and to ride it out with reassuring phrases such as, “When the fear appears, wait and let it pass.” The more control one feels, the easier the trapped anxious feelings dissipate.

In the typical chicken or egg question, does one’s reaction to stress cause physiological changes or does a biological disorder cause mental distress? We need to address both aspects in the present in our treatments.

In the future we may ascertain the root causes to employ preventative life-style choices and health monitoring. We will know more about the autonomic (automatic) nervous system, chemical imbalances (does our mental state cause this or does it cause our mental state?), brain cell sensitivity to certain chemicals or a lack thereof, difficulty in metabolizing lactate which is normally produced by muscles during exercise in sensitive people.