Colette Dowling, LCSW, author of the following article on panic attacks,
is a psychotherapist in Manhattan,
For information, or for a free phone consultation
call Colette at 718-594-0201
Women and Panic Attacks
Back when I had my first panic attack, in college, there wasn't even a term for it. The consensus was that I was suffering from anxiety over leaving home and the impending separation from parents.
My second panic attack hit four years later, in the Brooklyn Museum, where a photographer and I were at work on a magazine assignment shortly after I graduated from college. The reason for Panic Attack No. 2? None that I or anyone else could ever come up with. Panic anxiety is scary and can be utterly mystifying. The physiological symptoms of panic disorder are so severe people may think they're having a heart attack or going crazy.
Some Symptoms of a Panic Attack
There are two major explanations for the greater frequency and debilitation of panic disorder in women. One is hormonal and one is called the "suffocation alarm theory" and the two affect one another.
A triggered suffocation alarm can bring on acute and highly distressing breathlessness. Studies have shown that females with panic disorder have a hypersensitive suffocation alarm.
The Hormone Connection
Untreated panic disorder can lead to agoraphobia, or fear of leaving your home. Panic attacks should be treated as soon as possible. The longer they go untreated, the more entrenched the illness becomes. The brain needs to heal, and specific measures need to be taken to make that happen.
Once panic attacks become chronic they almost invariably require medical treatment. The most effective meds, hands down, are anti-depressants. Many rigorous medical studies have shown how quickly and thoroughly these medications do their work.
Sometimes psychiatrists will prescribe an anti-anxiety medication like Xanax, but only temporarily, until the antidepressant has time to build up in the system--usually a matter of a few weeks. (Ongoing Xanax treatment is rarely a good thing as it's highly addictive.)
What Treatment Can Do For You
Those who do get treatment for panic attacks are often happily surprised. It's hard to believe that you can be feeling ready for the psych unit one day, and calm and stable a few weeks later. In educating my patients about this I sometimes compare it to having a really horrendous case of the flue and then being successfully treated by antibiotics. Crisis over.
Panic disorder is different from garden-variety anxiety. Its symptoms are more physical and frightening. Heart palpitations, vertigo, difficulty breathing normally, along with sensations of profound fear--including fear that one is dying--can absolutely de-rail any sense of stability. You feel as if you're going crazy, and usually the whole thing hits out of the blue, adding to the sensation of complete abnormality. There's no blueprint for this experience. One has never felt anything like it before. Friends and family often don't know what's going on, either. All in all, it's lonely and terrifying.
Search for therapists or doctors in your location who treat panic attacks. They will know exactly what you're going through, and you will be on the way to a swift recovery.
Colette Dowling, LCSW, received
her masters degree from The Smith College School for Social Work and has
completed advanced training in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis at The Institute for Contemporary
Psychotherapy, in New York.She is also trained in EMDR for the treatment of trauma
Colette has a private practice in the Flatiron district in Manhattan. For a free phone consultation, or for further information call 718-594-0201.
To hear Colette speaking about what it's like starting therapy with someone new, click the audio button.
Copyright Colette Dowling, 2006-2010