It is in our nature to feel anxious and frightened to stressful or particularly life-threatening situations. We have an inbuilt and automatic mechanism that helps us respond to a difficult situation. It is known as the fight or flight response. As the name suggests, it guides the body to fight or flee from a situation that may present itself as a threat.
Panic attacks, on the other hand, are different from such responses of the body, although they may give you an impression of being such. A panic attack is defined as an exaggerated proportion of fear and anxiety that surfaces in response to a situation perceived as a severe threat, which actually and often is not.
Commonly, the attack onsets suddenly, spikes within a mere 10 minutes, and then takes about half an hour to subside. For instance, it is obvious to panic for someone who is being chased by an elephant. However, the same intensity of fear can be seen in someone on dropping a cup of tea on the floor.
40 - 70% of people who suffer from daytime panic attacks, also have the same at night. Needless to say, the disorder causes the person to wake up from sleep with a sudden mental jolt, causing a sudden state of fear for no apparent reason.
What Causes the Disorder?
With time, and without any help, the affected person may have several episodes of panic attack, and may always stay in fear of having another one. At this stage, the person is said to suffer from a chronic condition called panic disorder. Speaking of the factors behind the problem, experts have not yet found any.
However, they suspect that biological and environmental influence on the person could be linked. Not to mention, frequent exposure to stressful situations may be responsible. A death in the family or a severe trauma may set off an attack. This could occur soon after the event, or in some people, the same can take years to show.
Abnormal functions of the brain could also be an offender. Imbalance in chemicals known as neurotransmitters may increase the risk of having a panic attack. Some doctors say that the problem could be genetic, and some blame drug abuse as a major contributor.
People who wake up panicking from their sleep are often overwhelmed by a feeling of impending doom, not having a clue about where they are and what's happening. Physical symptoms such as sweating, racing heart, breathing problems, chills, shakiness, tightness in throat, and sensation of being choked may follow.
Some people complain about churning stomach, dry mouth, chest pain, and hot flushes. The sense of fear and terror could be more intense in people with a history of heart attack of heart disease. And as mentioned earlier, because of this, patients constantly live in a fear of another attack thus, creating a vicious cycle.
Sometimes, the situation could be so much worse that the person fails to understand that he/she is actually having an attack and showing all such symptoms. Severe disorientation, and detachment from reality could occur in such cases. And this is especially true with nocturnal panic attacks.
Treatment focuses on managing the panic attack symptoms, and reducing its occurrences. Mostly, a combination of medications and therapies proves effective in helping people lead normal lives. Psychotherapy is one effective way which most people go for when it comes to treating panic attack disorder.
Psychotherapy helps the affected person to identify and cope with thoughts and behavior which lead to panic attacks, and replace them with more rational and balanced ones. The therapy may also teach the person how to react to stressful situations to avoid an attack.
For instance, the patient could be advised to exercise some breathing patterns as soon as he/she starts getting anxious or frightened about something. Another important part of the therapy is to guide the patient to open up to his/her unresolved or unconscious thoughts or behavior, which may have a contribution in the causing panic attacks.
There are certain medicines which also help in reducing the frequency of panic attacks during nights and daytime. They include anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs. They prove to be more effective when used in conjunction with psychotherapy. Some patients may also be given heart medications to manage symptoms such as irregular heartbeats.
Panic attack or panic disorder cannot be kept from occurring. However, patients may follow certain measures to make the condition more manageable. Experts recommend patients to avoid alcohol, coffee or beverages, and develop a habit of reading something light or listen to soft music, especially before bedtime.
Needless to say, daily exercise and a healthy diet also help. It is also important to stop assuming about all possible repercussions of any negative situation(s) you are dealing with. Above all, have faith in yourself, and believe that everything will be fine - self motivation is the key.