People who endure panic attacks may develop their own set of coping mechanisms to help them deal with the situation. Or, they may simply believe that there’s nothing that can be done about the attacks, and they fall into a deep depressive state.
he nervous system could be considered the ultimate protector of the body. When a person faces a situation of extreme danger where a fight, an injury or even death seems possible, the nervous system kicks into overdrive and prepares the person to deal with the situation or run away. The heart beats faster, the blood rushes to the fingertips and the feet, and the person begins to breathe a bit faster. This is the infamous fight-or-flight reflex, and it can be incredibly helpful in protecting a person from danger. When prepared, the person can deal with the situation and escape unharmed. There are times, however, when this nervous system goes haywire and kicks on for seemingly no reason at all. These episodes are often called “panic attacks,” and they can be incredibly disabling.
While the American Psychological Association is quick to point out that only a licensed professional can diagnose panic attacks and determine the cause for the episodes. There are some signs families can watch for, and in some cases, families can use these signs to encourage the person to see a professional for needed help.
Describing a Panic Attack
As mentioned, the fight-or-flight instinct lies at the core of a panic attack. But instead of helping the person prepare to deal with a real threat that is imminent, the instinct kicks on for seemingly no reason whatsoever. The person might be driving, at the grocery store, sitting in class or just watching television, and suddenly a variety of symptoms take hold.
Most symptoms peak within 10 to 20 minutes, but some can go on for an hour or more. The person might, honestly, feel as though he or she is dying or having a heart attack.
The consequences of panic attacks are varied. For example, some people who develop panic attacks become convinced that the places they were standing when the attacks occurred are somehow to blame. In fact, the National Institutes of Mental Health reports that some people who experience panic attacks begin to avoid the situations in which they’ve experienced attacks in the past. This could cause a wide variety of problems. Young people may avoid going to school, for example, or adults may refuse to drive. Some people may even refuse to leave the house altogether, as they’re convinced that they’ll face another attack as soon as they leave.
Some people with severe cases of repeat panic attacks may turn to drugs or alcohol to help numb their symptoms and allow them to feel calmer and more in control. This is not a cure for panic attacks, however, and people who lean on drugs and alcohol are at increased risk for developing addiction issues that will also require treatment.
Causes for Panic Attacks
According to the American Psychological Association, one in 75 people will experience a panic attack during his or her lifetime. The attacks are common during the early years of adulthood, and they’re more common in women than they are in men.
These risk factors could also play a role:
Major life changes, such as an impending marriage or a new job
The death of a loved one
A family history of panic attacks
A history of childhood abuse
Enduring a violent attack
Some people have one or two panic attacks, and then they never have another episode. Other people have multiple attacks over a long period of time. These people are often diagnosed with so-called “panic disorders,” and they may or may not have other mental health issues at the same time. For example, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, 22.7 percent of people had panic attacks alone. Note that this is far less than half of people studied. The rest had full-blown panic disorders or panic attacks made worse by another mental illness, such as agoraphobia. People who have panic attacks in concert with other mental illnesses face increased challenges, as the conditions may augment one another and prevent the person from obtaining needed help.
While some studies suggest that genetics plays a role in the development of panic attacks, other studies say that a person’s personality and way of dealing with the world might also have a part to play. For example, a study in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry found that people with avoidant personalities who shy away from conflict and suppress their own wishes in order to keep the peace tend to develop panic attacks more frequently than those who do not. It could be that these people didn’t develop the skills they needed to deal with problems when they were young, so their nervous system overreacts in the face of a threat. Or it could be that these personalities are also passed down in the genes.
Why Is It Ignored?
The first time a person feels the symptoms of a panic attack, he or she might rush right into an emergency room. After all, the person might believe he or she is having a heart attack, as most people are conditioned to spot the signs of a heart attack, and most people know that the emergency room is best equipped to deal with this life-threatening situation. However, people with panic disorders may not receive the help they need in an emergency room. It might sound cliché, but it can be disheartening for the person to think he or she is dying only to be told, “It’s all in your head.” This could keep people from ever bringing up the subject again, even though the symptoms persist. They may be unable to deal with the fact that the brain, and not the body, is to blame, and the emergency room is often not equipped to provide the follow-up mental health services the person needs.
In addition, some people who do bring up their panic attacks don’t get the help they need to overcome the disorders. According to the American Psychological Association, people with these problems sometimes see 10 doctors for the same symptoms, and only one in four gets needed treatments. Some people get so tired of asking for help that they simply stop asking altogether.
The Need for Intervention
Families who live with someone who has a panic disorder are under a significant amount of stress. Family members may feel as though they’re walking on eggshells, trying to keep the person from having another attack. Or, they may notice that the person is withdrawing into isolation, thinking that no one truly understands the disorder and the pain the person is feeling. While it might sound counterintuitive, families who confront people with panic disorders may be doing them a big favor.
People who have panic disorders can get treatment and recover, but they often need to be advocates for their own health. They need to find a doctor who will listen, and then they need to follow the treatment plan put together by the doctor. Families who hold interventions can help the person do just that.
For example, the Mayo Clinic reports that people with panic attacks should follow these steps to prepare for a talk with their doctors about panic disorders:
Make a specific list of instances when a panic attack occurred.
Describe how the panic attacks have affected the person’s life and relationships.
Detail any family history of mental health disorders.
Ask a family member to attend the meeting to ask additional questions.
In an intervention, the family will do much of the heavy lifting to help the person prepare for this appointment. For example, in an intervention, the family will tell the person when they’ve noticed a panic attack occurring, and they’ll detail how these attacks have impacted their relationships and their family. They’ll encourage the person to go see a professional, and they’ll offer to attend those meetings with the person. Ideally, the family will also have a therapist all lined up to meet the person, and it’s likely that the family will have chosen a therapist that specializes in providing the help the person needs.
An intervention is commonly held for people who have an addiction, it’s true, but it’s also true that this model can be helpful in encouraging those with mental illnesses to get the help they need to improve.
The person with the panic disorder might have an emotional or stress-based reaction to the intervention. This is a significant risk in holding an intervention with people who have mental illnesses. For this reason, most experts suggest that families hire and retain a professional to hold these delicate intervention meetings. This professional can step in and provide assistance if the intervention proves too difficult for the person to tolerate.
If you’d like help staging an intervention or have any questions about the process, call us today.
Don’t let another day stand between your loved one and a healthy, stable life.