Dear Dr. Garner,
I am a fit 43-year-old woman. I exercise five days a week, am not overweight and have had no medical problems until about three months ago.
It started when I was grocery shopping. My heart started racing, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I could feel the pounding of my heart so strong. I felt faint and nauseous. I thought I would pass out.
It really scared me. This has happened on other occasions and seems to happen most when I am running errands. I am really getting frightened because it is happening more and more often.
I hate going to doctors, but my mother thinks it might be a panic attack. She wants me to see a psychiatrist.
I watch your show, and I trust your opinion. What do you think I should do?
Panicked in Prospect Park
I agree with your mother that you may be experiencing panic attacks. Other disorders must be also considered, and a full examination by your primary care doctor is in order.
I just discussed panic disorders with my wife, who happens to be a psychiatrist, and she informed me that this disorder is much more common than people believe.
People with panic attacks often develop phobias (fears) about places or situations where the panic attacks have occurred, such as supermarkets.
Sometimes they are so scared that they won’t leave their house.
The attacks can occur at any time and may even wake someone from sleep. They are much more common in women than in men.
The attacks may be more frequent in those who suffer from depression or addiction.
No one knows what causes panic attacks, but it is known to run in families. This suggests that there may be a genetic or inherited component.
Some believe it is due to a disorder of the nervous system. There may be a sudden chemical imbalance that can trigger the attacks.
Caffeine, alcohol and several drugs can also trigger the symptoms.
The attacks generally last about 10 minutes, but they may be a few minutes shorter or as long as 45 minutes. It all depends on the individual person.
The treatment options consist of medication and behavioral therapy. Either treatment is effective.
Behavioral therapy consists of:
• Learning — helps the patient to identify symptoms
• Monitoring — patient keeps a diary to monitor the attacks
• Breathing — breathing relaxation techniques are taught to help the patient relax
• Rethinking — helps to make patients understand that the symptoms, while scary, are not life-threatening.
• Exposing — the therapist helps the patient encounter situations that cause the frightening physical symptoms, at levels of gradually increasing intensity.
The bottom line is that if you have the condition (you will need a thorough physical exam prior to treatment), it is something that can be controlled.
I urge you to see your primary care doctor as soon as possible to develop a plan before the condition becomes incapacitating.
Until next week, be well.[hr] Dr. Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.