Ask The Doctor

Understanding and Avoiding Panic

Dear Dr. Garner,

Yesterday I thought I was going to die. I was out on Flatbush Avenue shopping, when I couldn’t catch my breath. My heart was racing, and I felt like I was going crazy. My friend told me she thinks it could be a panic attack. Is there any way to know what was going on and if these are panic attacks?

Freaky Friday Feelings on Flatbush Avenue


Dear Freaky Friday,

In the past, there was no way to tell if someone was having panic attacks versus more serious problems such as heart disease and lung problems. The symptoms mimic one another. New research was presented, which gives a way to verify if one has panic attacks. We will discuss this a little later, but first, let us discuss what a panic attack is.

A panic attack has an abrupt onset. One feels fear or discomfort. It peaks in about 10 minutes and must include at least four of these symptoms.

• Feeling imminent danger

• Need to escape

• Palpitations

• Sweating

• Trembling

• Shortness of breath

• Feeling of chocking

• Chest pain

• Nausea

• Dizziness

• Fear of losing control

• Fear of dying

• Tingling sensation

• Chills or hot flashes

About six million Americans suffer from panic attacks, and in many cases, it interferes severely with their quality of life.

Some people actually change their daily routines to help avoid these attacks.

Many of the sufferers feel that the attacks are a sign of underlying medical problems, and they often become “shut-ins.”

The attacks can be scattered or occur on a daily basis, and they usually start when someone is in his or her 20s and 30s. Women are affected much more than men.

Learning to recognize the attacks is important, and one can often take steps to lessen the frequency of attacks and manage them better.

There is no quick cure. It is important to recognize the symptoms and understand that they are more worrisome than a cause of actual harm. People who feel panic attacks tend to be overcritical of themselves. It is important to lower the general anxiety level through techniques such as meditation and exercise. It is also important to avoid stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine.

It was reported that women who have at least one panic attack every six months are three times more likely to have heart attacks or strokes over the next five years compared to women who didn’t have a panic attack. This further emphasizes the necessity for having your doctor closely involved if you have panic attacks.

There is treatment available such as psychotherapy, behavioral therapy and medication.

Psychotherapy helps reduce the fear of the attack, and antidepressant medication helps reduce anxiety and the number of attacks.

Meditation is often used to help relax the body and relieve anxiety.

A visit to your doctor is imperative as your symptoms may indicate underlying heart disease, lung disease and gynecological problems. At least one thorough physical should be performed.

The bottom line is that there are things you can do to prevent or lessen the severity of panic attacks. I urge you to schedule an appointment with your physician who can tailor a therapy just right for you.