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What’s a Panic Attack Really Like?

By on March 8, 2012
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Supermodel Naomi Campbell and TV weatherman, Willard Scott are two of millions around the world who suffer from panic attacks or some form of anxiety disorder. It’s a problem that can have real serious physical implications–like the feeling of a real heart attack.

A person having a panic attack experiences a period of intense fear or discomfort while physically feeling some combination of these symptoms:

  • heart palpitations
  • feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness
  • trembling or shaking
  • nausea or abdominal distress
  • chills or hot flushes
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness around the chest so extreme that it can feel like a heart attack

Persons suffering a panic attack can feel as if they’re about to die, to “lose control”or ‘go crazy’. They may feel as if the world seems unreal, or may feel detached from themselves. When panic attacks recur and are followed by significant fears of their reappearance and by changes in behavior- such as by avoiding circumstances that the person is afraid will trigger an attack- the person is diagnosed as having panic disorder.

Often panic attacks manifest themselves in the context of major life changes – graduation, a new job, a promotion – that have conflicted underlying meaning for the individual . A mental health therapist or counselor can help the anxious person to regain a sense of emotional control by considering the meaning of the symptoms in the context of his life and relationships. Because the predisposition to panic attacks has a biological underpinning, medications may be used in conjunction with psychoanalytic treatment. But studies have shown that a combination of medication and therapy works best for this problem. There are also alternatives to medications that many turn to for anxiety disorders. As always consult your doctor for medical advice and information.

2 Comments

  1. Staff Contributor

    March 22, 2012 at 12:31 am

    Damon, thanks for the great comment and for sharing your own path to the correct diagnosis and services. I hope you are better than ever. Stay strong brother.

  2. Damon Colquhoun

    March 21, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    I called to set up a meeting with a therapist. The screener asked me why I felt I needed therapy. I told her that I was always quitting things I’d started and despite knowing that it was coming, the urge to quit felt out of my control. She then asked if there was any particular reason that I thought this was a medical issue. I said that I’d done some research and my symptoms seemed to match those of ADHD. She was willing to schedule me, but seemed unmoved. She dug deeper by asking if there was anything else that might be causing stress in my life. I told her no, my relationship is good and I’m physically healthy, so no. I then added that I’d been shot when I was about 8 years old…and that I’d been molested, but those things happened a long time ago. She asked if I’d seen anyone about those experiences. I told her no, again, those happened a Iong time ago, so I was over it by now. She took a deep breath, exhaled, then scheduled my appointment.

    It turns out that I had OCD (an anxiety based disorder) and non-specific (general) anxiety. As we traced my past, I discovered that those two things, and a mother experiencing similar anxiety had created a subtle mess in my life that had stopped me from accomplishing so many of the things I aggressively went after. For example, I started flying airplanes, but never finished my license. I won a NYC business plan competition, but could bring myself to actually start the business (even though I left my previous career to do so). Well meaning friends offered the best advice they could, “You just gotta stick with what you start. We all gotta do things we don’t want to do. Everybody experiences that. Just try harder.”

    Panic attacks are very real, but general clinical anxiety (far less dramatic than panic attacks) are rampant in many African American communities. General anxiety can cause a range of symptoms; anger; a subtle, but lingering sadness; general fear; it can even cause a person to just up and quit projects, tasks, and goals – no matter how motivated and intelligent they are. Sometimes, you can even see it in a person’s eye’s (that dude in the hood or in the club, whose eyes scream “Fuck with me, I’ll kill you just because!”).

    African Americans need to let go of our paranoia and fear of therapy and seek the help so many of us often need. I spent a year in therapy, and it did wonders for me. No drugs were necessary, just some casual conversations with a knowledgeable and experienced professional. Now I feel like a home run hitter, fast balls come my way everyday (including the urge to quit), but my post therapy self sees potential stressors coming a mile away and in slow motion, and is able to knock them out the park with relative ease and little to no stress.

    Thanks for letting me share.

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