Dear Doc | Worried about these panic attacks
Q I am very concerned that I have a heart condition, and it is not being taken seriously. I have been to the emergency room a few times with the same bad feeling with pain in my chest and feeling like I can’t breathe, and almost passing out. Each time they say nothing is wrong with me and it is all in my head, and now they tell me I need to see a psychiatrist!
Now, I know how I feel, and I not mad! I am not going to see no head doctor, so can you please help me in figuring out what is wrong with me.
A I understand your concern, and I do believe there may have been a misunderstanding somewhere. By referring you to a psychiatrist and saying that “it’s all in your head,” they simply meant that there isn’t anything physically wrong with you. There is always a misconception that being referred to a psychiatrist means that you are “mad”, but that speciality of medicine treats the non-physical aspect of illness.
To make you feel better, it appears you may be having what is called panic attacks.
A panic attack, is when a person feels very scared and anxious for a short period of time.
These attacks can cause chest pain and breathing problems that cause people to visit the emergency room. That is because panic attacks can be very frightening! When panic attacks occur, affected persons feel as though they are losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.
Many people may have one or two panic attacks in their lifetime, and the problem goes away when the stressful situation ends. But if you have recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and have a fear of having another attack, you may have panic disorder.
Panic attacks themselves are not life-threatening, but they can be frightening and significantly affect your quality of life.
Like you, persons with panic attacks often believe they are having a heart attack or that something is seriously wrong with their heart.
They typically begin suddenly, and without warning, and include the following:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of death
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your chest or throat
- Hot flashes
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness.
If you are indeed having these panic attack symptoms, and notice they are occurring often, you should seek the intervention of the psychiatrist you were referred to.
Panic attacks are not dangerous but are hard to manage on your own, and they may get worse without treatment.
There is no sure way to prevent panic attacks; however, getting treatment for panic attacks as soon as possible to help stop them from getting worse, or becoming more frequent, is very important. You should also stick with your treatment plan after you start feeling better to help prevent relapses or worsening of panic attack symptoms.
Treatment and follow-up care is usually done by a mental health professional.
Treatment is aimed at reducing the intensity and frequency of your panic attacks. The main treatment options are psychotherapy and medications. One or both types of treatment may be recommended, depending on your preference, the severity of your panic attacks, and whether you have access to therapists who have special training in treating panic disorders.
Psychotherapy, which can be considered talk therapy, is an effective first-choice treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder. Seeing results from this form of treatment can take time and effort. You may start to see panic attack symptoms reduce within several weeks, and often symptoms decrease significantly or go away within several months. You may schedule occasional maintenance visits with your therapist to help ensure that your panic attacks remain under control or to treat recurrences.
Medications can also help reduce symptoms associated with panic attacks. Several types of medication have been shown to be effective in managing symptoms of panic attacks. It can also take several weeks after first starting a medication to notice an improvement in symptoms, and they do have a risk of side effects.
Another option that may help with your treatment is joining a support group. Joining a support group for people with panic attacks or anxiety disorders can connect you with others facing the same problems. All of these treatment options will be facilitated by the psychiatrist who you were referred to.
Now, if you are still reluctant about seeing the psychiatrist, you may try these lifestyle and home remedies:
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, smoking and recreational drugs. All of these can trigger or worsen panic attacks.
- Practise stress management and relaxation techniques. For example, yoga, or deep breathing can be helpful.
- Get physically active. Aerobic activity may have a calming effect on your mood.
- Get sufficient sleep. Get enough sleep so that you don’t feel drowsy during the day.