Monday, August 18, 2008

Panic Disorder - Are Women More Prone to Panic Attacks ?

Pounding heart, dizziness and sheer terror for no apparent reason are among the symptoms of a panic attack or anxiety disorder that strikes mostly women.

Three million or more Americans suffer from panic disorder which was recognized as a distinct psychiatric condition 12 years ago. Dr. Frederick K. Goodwin, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said 75 percent of those who suffer from panic disorder do not get the help they need - although a variety of therapies can lift the paralyzing fear for 70 percent to 90 percent of sufferers.

Panic disorder, which usually surfaces during teen-age years or early 20s, affects twice as many women as men. An attack may last only seconds or minutes, but leaves a victim unsteady for some time afterward.

Fear of Anticipation

Frequently, the anticipation of having subsequent attacks is more frightening than an attack itself.

Panic disorder is diagnosed when either an unprovoked episode of at least four of the following symptoms occurs within one month, or when one such attack is followed by persistent fear of having another:

• Intense terror
• Sweating
• Numbness or tingling, especially in the hands or feet
• Hot or cold flashes
• Shortness of breath
• Chest discomfort
• Feelings of unreality
• Nausea
• Choking or smothering sensations
• Fear of losing control, going crazy or dying
• Faintness
• Heart palpitations
• Trembling

Sufferers may be overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom and a feeling of unreality. They often think they are having a stroke, heart attack or that they're losing their mind, as the chest pains they are experiencing can also be a symptom of a panic attack. Some manage to function. Others are forced to give up their jobs and relationships. Many treat their condition with alcohol or illicit drugs. As many as 20 percent of these people may attempt suicide, according to Myrna Weissman, professor of epidemiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City.

A substantial number of panic disorder sufferers develop agoraphobia, avoiding situations where they imagine an attack might occur or where help or escape would be difficult. Agoraphobics may be unable to eat in restaurants, travel in cars or planes, cross wide streets or shop in supermarkets. Some may not venture outside their homes.

The exact cause of panic disorder is unclear, but researchers believe the unpredictable attacks are prompted by a biochemical abnormality. Often the first attacks are triggered by physical or emotional stress involving loss or separation.

Two parallel tracks in treating panic disorder have evolved over the last 12 years - medication and behavioural or cognitive therapies. Increasingly experts acknowledge that patients frequently need a combination of drugs and psychotherapy.

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