Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Medications options for panic attacks typically include benzodiazepines and antidepressants. Benzodiazepines are being prescribed less often because of their potential side effects, such as dependence, fatigue, slurred speech, and memory loss. Antidepressant treatments for panic attacks include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and MAO inhibitors (MAOIs). SSRIs in particular tend to be the first drug treatment used to treat panic attacks. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants appear similar for short-term efficacy. SSRIs carry a relatively low risk due to the fact that they are not associated with much of a tolerance or dependence, and are difficult to overdose with. TCAs are similar to SSRIs in their many advantages, but come with more common side effects such as weight gain and cognitive disturbances. They are also easier to overdose on. MAOIs are generally suggested for patients who have not responded to other forms of treatment.
Since panic attacks are caused by overly apprehensive behavior or chronic stress, addressing our overly apprehensive behavior and stress can stop and prevent panic attacks, and eventually, panic disorder. The combination of good self-help information and therapy is the most effective way of addressing overly apprehensive behavior. Accessing good self-help information and applying it is a good way to reduce stress.
Meditation may also be helpful in the treatment of panic disorders. There was a meta-analysis of the comorbidity of panic disorders and agoraphobia. It used exposure therapy to treat the patients over a period. Hundreds of patients were used in these studies and they all met the DSM-IV criteria for both of these disorders. A result was that thirty-two percent of patients had a panic episode after treatment. They concluded that the use of exposure therapy has lasting efficacy for a client who is living with a panic disorder and agoraphobia.
Approximately one-third of people with panic disorder will also develop agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia are afraid that they will have some anxiety symptoms or a full-blown panic attack in a place where it would be very challenging or embarrassing for them to flee. This condition can lead to avoidance behaviors, in which they try to stay away from all places or situations in which they may have a panic attack.
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Kirstie Craine Ruiz, 46, has lived with anxiety, panic attacks, and panic disorder for about ten years. For a long time, she had full-blown attacks 2-3 nights a week. “I would usually awake to a racing heart or the feeling of my heart expanding in my chest…like it might explode… From there, I would begin to panic and my heart would go even faster….and my body would shake so hard that it felt like I was having a convulsion. I could barely breathe and was usually pretty sure I was having a heart attack and that I was going to die. Sometimes I’d go the ER and they’d hold me overnight because my heart would be going so fast and they couldn’t get it to go down.”
Panic attacks are extremely unpleasant and can be very frightening. As a result, people who experience repeated panic attacks often become very worried about having another attack and may make changes to their lifestyle so as to avoid having panic attacks. For example, avoiding exercise so as to keep their heart rate low, or avoiding certain places.
Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they can also be helpful for treating anxiety disorders. They may help improve the way your brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress. You may need to try several different antidepressant medicines before finding the one that improves your symptoms and has manageable side effects. A medication that has helped you or a close family member in the past will often be considered.