The Truth Behind Panic Attacks

Your heart's racing, your stomach is churning, and you're dizzy. Yet you felt perfectly fine just a minute ago. Panic attacks can sneak up on just about anyone -- and the conditions that create them are on the rise.
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Where Anxiety Comes From

It was sunny, traffic on the highway was light, and Mary Lukens was feeling relaxed as she drove home. Then, out of nowhere, she was hit with overwhelming anxiety. Her heart began to race, she felt sick to her stomach, and her arm and leg started tingling. "I thought that I was having a heart attack," the 51-year-old marketing entrepreneur recalls. She managed to drive to a rest stop, get out of the car, and attract the attention of an employee. An ambulance took her to the hospital. After an evaluation, doctors gave her a surprising diagnosis: She'd had a panic attack.

As businesses close and layoffs mount, people are bound to experience more frequent panic attacks, which are often exacerbated by increased life stress, says Martin M. Antony, PhD, professor of psychology at Ryerson University, in Toronto, Ontario, and author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook. This isn't the usual anxiety you feel when your heart beats faster and your stomach flip-flops because you have to make a presentation or go for a mammogram.

A panic attack doesn't always have an obvious trigger. "Nothing explains why this intense reaction can seem to come out of the blue," says Jerilyn Ross, president and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Attacks can happen to anyone, but women are twice as likely to get them as men; some experts believe women's hormones play a role.

Panic disorder affects as many as 6 million American adults. In a recent study of postmenopausal women -- people probably not much affected by hormone swings -- 10 percent reported an attack in the prior six months. "That was much higher than we expected," says coauthor Jordan W. Smoller, MD, ScD, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Though terrifying, panic attacks are not dangerous. Many people who have one never have another, but if you become consumed by the fear of future episodes you may develop panic disorder or a related problem. "People with panic disorder are constantly thinking about where and when the next attack might happen," Ross says. Even normal physical reactions can unnerve them. "They become hypervigilant -- freaking out if they get breathless after walking up some stairs," says psychiatrist Lindsay Kiriakos, MD, author of Panic Disorder: How to Fight Back and Win.

About a third of panic-disorder sufferers develop agoraphobia, based on a deep fear of having a panic attack in public. They might begin to refuse to eat in restaurants or avoid driving on highways where exits are spaced far apart, Dr. Kiriakos says.

Continued on page 2:  Why Some People Get Attacks


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