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Don't Panic... It's only Panic

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Panic Disorder » Featured Article

By Katy Golbar, MFT

Katy Golbar, MFT

Navigating Through Panic Attacks

Have you ever felt as though you are suddenly losing control and the only way to escape this horrible feeling is to run away and get as far away as you possibly can? Your heart is racing, you can't catch your breath, you don't know what you're running from and you don't know where you're running to. It's a horrible feeling that everyone can relate to, and it's called a "panic attack" or "anxiety attack."

What is a panic attack? In simple medical terms, it is a period of intense fear or discomfort, typically with an abrupt onset and usually lasting no more than 30 minutes. The classic symptoms of a panic attack include shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pains, chills, and an overwhelming fear that one's life is in dire jeopardy. Many people who suffer through panic attacks frequent the emergency room--only to learn that they are perfectly healthy and have just experienced a panic attack.

First and foremost, it is important to understand that panic is your body's way of communicating with you to get your attention. When someone is involved in a car accident, their body typically responds with the "flight or fight" reaction—pumping large amounts of adrenaline through the body to improve alertness, while triggering shortness of breath, trembling, and a racing heartbeat. But people faced with panic attacks repeatedly experience this flight or fight response at times when there is no danger.

So here you are with a clean bill of health and you still can't shake these horrible symptoms. What should you do? In my work with clients who experience frequent panic attacks, I have come to find that there are usually underlying psychological reasons that trigger panic attacks and their frightening symptoms. But don't panic, it's just panic. If you're experiencing panic attacks, it's time to go on the offensive. Don't let panic attack you when you can attack panic. The first step in your attack plan should be acceptance. Acceptance that you have panic attacks and that there is absolutely no shame in experiencing panic attacks. The second part of your attack plan is reaching out for help. I often recommend that my clients first meet with their Primary Care Physician to rule out any medical reasons for the symptoms. There are times that medical symptoms can mimic psychological problems that only a medical doctor can diagnose.

If your primary care physician has ruled out medical problems, I recommend meeting with a mental health professional, such as a Psychiatrist (medical doctor), Licensed Psychologist (Ph.D or Psy.D), a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) or a Licensed Clinician Social Worker (LCSW)--all of whom are qualified to diagnose your issues and provide the needed education and course of treatment for your symptoms.

Remember, anxiety is our body's way of letting us know that we are feeling helpless and insecure. Therapy can assist in building coping skills to counteract the negative thought patterns that lead to panic attacks. Medication can also be a valuable resource to patients with anxiety disorders. I always refer my clients to a psychiatrist for a thorough mental health assessment to determine if medication and which medication may prove helpful for a patient in conjunction with the traditional therapy and counseling I provide. You don't have to be a prisoner of your symptoms when there are so many resources to help you break free.

In my own practice, I teach patients coping skills while identifying the internal and external triggers to their panic attacks. I recommend keeping a journal with the days and times you experience panic attacks and what you were doing and thinking at the times of those attacks. This makes it easier to manage and identify thought patterns and psychological triggers that induce your panic. In order to manage your anxiety, it is important to learn how to calm yourself and remind yourself that you WILL get through these moments of discomfort. And you can start by using the following mantra: DON'T PANIC, IT'S JUST PANIC.

About the Author...

Katy Golbar, MFT graduated from Long Beach State with her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. She immediately went to Phillips Graduate Institute where she got a specialty in Family Therapy and graduated with her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy in 2000. Throughout her academic career she had found a great passion for identifying patterns that individuals have been repeating which lead her to become the PathPoint Organization’s Mental Health Program Manager in Ventura County. Ms. Golbar strived to create a program that enabled individuals with chronic mental illness to get the most out of their life by providing groups that focused on coping skills, social skills and independent living skills. Today in her private practice, Ms. Golbar continues to assist her clients in living more fulfilling, fear-free lives. Ms. Golbar has an office both in Sherman Oaks and Thousand Oaks, California.

Last Update: 10/18/2009

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