Health & Family

Panic attack is scary false alarm

When he had a near-accident on a highway about 10 years ago, Larry Anthony's whole body reacted: He broke into a cold sweat, his heart was racing, he was shaking.

He wrote it off as a natural reaction to the scare until a week later when he was driving again and, out of the blue, the symptoms reappeared. “My heart suddenly started racing and my chest ached,” said Anthony, 54, a Winnetka, Ill., computer consultant. “I was sweating and shaking. I couldn't catch my breath, and I thought I was going to die.”

Within minutes, his symptoms subsided, but his worrisome thinking was just beginning. “When I got home, I forced myself to drive again, but in less than a mile I felt uneasy – here I go again. The next day, I was at the library looking up ‘phobia.' I read about panic attacks, then searched the Internet for a psychotherapist.”

After trial and error, Anthony found the ideal therapist and began the difficult work of learning to take charge of his life. “Then one day, I arrived for my appointment and my therapist was wearing her winter coat.” Anthony says. “She told me we were going for a ride and I was the driver. She wasn't afraid to drive with me!”

Panic disorder affects about 6 million American adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and is twice as common in women as it is in men. Panic attacks are so common that Rahul K. Khare, an emergency room physician at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said, “One in 50 people arriving in the emergency room has chest pains due to a panic attack.

“When I see a young adult with chest discomfort, complaining of tingling in the fingertips, an episode of hyperventilation, and stating he had an upsetting event, such as a heated conversation with a girlfriend,” said Khare, “I can comfortably say it's a panic attack.”

Northbrook licensed psychotherapist Mona H. Berman explains the phenomenon as a false alarm that stimulates the fight-or-flight response. There's no mountain lion stalking you, or any real threat, but an inborn defense reaction kicks your body into gear, and a load of adrenaline is unleashed, causing a variety of daunting symptoms. “Anxiety disorders are chronic and don't get cured,” says Berman, “but they can be managed.”

Panic attacks become problematic and become panic disorder when the symptoms aren't ignored and the fear of the next attack is so overwhelming that it becomes life altering. “When that happens, if the person starts avoiding places and situations that may trigger another attack (agoraphobia),” describes Berman, “their life becomes smaller and smaller.”

Berman compares it to having a cold: “You have uncomfortable symptoms, but you're not scared. It's annoying, but you know it's not dangerous or life threatening. The goal is to understand and accept that a panic attack is not dangerous or life threatening.

“The treatment of choice is…therapy, with or without medication,” says Berman. “Expose yourself to anxiety-producing situations and learn that while panic attacks can be alarming, they're typically short-lived and harmless.”