The Truth Behind Panic Attacks
What Can Help
And if you find yourself avoiding situations that might bring on an episode or having other problems that stem from them, consider additional help. Each attack carves a pathway in your brain that makes future episodes more likely, Dr. Ritvo says.
Fortunately, panic is one of the most treatable anxiety disorders. The best approach is cognitive behavioral therapy, says Dr. Antony. CBT exposes you little by little to what makes you anxious. The goal? To get used to the actual symptoms you have during an attack: shortness of breath, dizziness, a feeling of being out of control.
"We want people to teach themselves that they can handle the discomfort they fear," says Reid Wilson, PhD, director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and author of Don't Panic. You might shake your head until you're dizzy or walk up and down stairs until you're short of breath. After several weeks or months the symptoms no longer make you anxious. The doctor may also help shift your thinking about what triggers anxiety. Drugs can help, too. A six-month to one-year course of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as Prozac, normalizes brain chemicals and prevents the fear center from taking over.
"Drugs and CBT are equally effective in the short term, but the benefits of CBT last much longer," says Dr. Antony. Many doctors use both.
For Mary Lukens, keeping a Xanax in her purse has been enough to stop her from worrying about -- or having -- a recurrence. Ironically, her panic attack even may have saved her life. During her time in the ER, doctors found blockages in her neck caused by dangerously high cholesterol, which she's since lowered. The terror on the turnpike that made her fear a heart attack may have actually prevented one.