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Good Mental Health - Anxiety and Panic Attacks With Dr. Fearon

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Today is our fourth and final look at good mental health. In this feature, we focus on anxiety and panic attacks.

Professor Fearon graduated in Medicine from University College Dublin.
Following 5 years post graduate training in general medicine, Prof Fearon specialised in psychiatry. He completed his training at the Maudsley Hospital, London.

He has worked as a consultant general adult psychiatrist for 7 years and as a senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London; he headed the section of Social Psychiatry and Epidemiology where his research interest included the epidemiology and role of social factors in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
He returned to Dublin to take up a post in St Patrick's Hospital and Trinity College in 2008.

What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks are sudden, discrete periods of intense anxiety and mounting physiological fear.
During a panic attack a sufferer feels intense discomfort.

What is anxiety and panic?
Anxiety - is a normal feeling we all get when faced with situations we find threatening or even difficult. Fear and anxiety can be useful because they can make us feel more alert.
Panic - is a sudden surge of anxiety which usually leads to the person having to quickly get out of the situation they are in.

Who is affected by Anxiety and Panic Attacks and how does it affect a sufferer?
Anxiety attacks can affect about one in every ten people at some point in their lives. Anxiety is the normal human feeling of fear that we all experience when faced with threatening or difficult situations. It can help us to avoid dangerous situations, making us alert and giving us the motivation to deal with problems. But, if these feelings of anxiety are too strong, it can stop us from doing the things we want to.

How do we notice if we are having a panic or anxiety attack or even if a loved one is experiencing a panic attack?
You will probably notice you are behaving out of character and no longer able to live your life normally. You may appear fearful and worried all the time, you may be easily startled by normal sounds, you may avoid situations, sometimes taking drastic actions like never leaving your house, be irritable and tired, look pale, lack confidence, trouble sleeping, some physical symptoms like dizziness, palpitations, faintness and sweating.

Obvious Symptoms?

Mind: feeling worried all the time, tired, irritable, sleeping badly and poor concentration.

Body: racing heartbeat, muscle tension, aches and pains, shaking, sweating, breathing heavily, dizziness, faintness, indigestion and diarrhea.

What does a panic attack feel like for the sufferer?
You have a sudden and overwhelming sense of fear and loss of control. Your breathing quickens and your heart will pound. You will sweat; you may even feel like you are going to die. You have an overwhelming desire to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.

What would cause a panic attack or an anxiety attack?

There are four causes:

Genes: Some of us are born more anxious than others. Research suggests this can be inherited through our genes and even someone who is not naturally anxious can get anxious under enough pressure.

Circumstances: Sometimes it's obvious that something is making you anxious and when the problem goes away, so then does the anxiety. But sometimes some circumstances are very threatening - for example a bad crash or a fire and the anxiety goes on long after the event. You can feel nervous and anxious for months or even years after the event has happened. This can happen even if you are not physically harmed. We call this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Drugs: Certain street drugs like amphetamines, LSD or ecstasy can make you anxious - but for some people even caffeine can be enough to do it.

Life experiences: A bad experience in the past, big changes in y our life in the present such as pregnancy, changing jobs, unemployment and even moving house can make you anxious.

How would you, as a professional, make a diagnosis?
Usually I would talk to the patient or a close relative or close friend to ascertain the history and recent life events to see if anything may have triggered the anxiety. Also it is important to ascertain if there are any other reasons for this anxiety such as excess alcohol or street drugs.

What treatments are available?
. Talking therapies such as psychotherapy and counseling, cognitive behavioural therapy, (this helps the person think about themselves and others in a different way),it's more intensive and can help you understand and control your anxieties. It can be done weekly for a few weeks or for months.
. Medication such as tranquilisers like valium type medicines and benzodiazepines like sleeping tablets are very effective but can be quite addictive even after a short term usage. They should only be taken for periods of 2 weeks or less.
. Anti depressants can work very well but they usually take two to four weeks to take effect and some can cause side affects like nausea, drowsiness, dizziness and dry mouth or even constipation.
. Beta Blockers are usually used to treat high blood pressure but are useful in low doses to control the physical shaking of anxiety.
. Self Help is good if you can learn relaxation techniques through groups or professionals or using books, CD's and DVD's.
. Talking things through with a trusted family member or friend.
. Self help groups where people with similar problems is easy as they understand what you are going through. They may be able to suggest ways of coping.

All information was sourced from the website advised by Prof Fearon below:,panicphobias.aspx