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What Women Can Do to Overcome Panic Attacks

You open your mouth, but you can’t breathe. Your chest is tight. Your heart is pounding. You feel the perspiration sting at your temples. Something is wrong, but you don’t know what. You sit down and put your head low, but you still can’t breathe.

You can’t breathe.

Your friend rushes you to the hospital. You’re gasping. The nurses hurry you back and hook you up to the oxygen. You suck it in and feel a sweet sense of relief. The air goes into your lungs. Your heartbeat slows. Finally, you can breathe. But still, with worried eyes, you watch the doctor as he checks all the instruments and goes over your stats. Finally, he comes over to the bedside and looks down at you.

“You’re breathing just fine,” he says. “Your lungs are just fine.”

Huh? You ask questions. That can’t be right. Just moments ago, you couldn’t breathe.

“We’ll run more tests,” he says, “but your lungs look good.”

You frown. You’re confused. What’s going on?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that about six million adult Americans are affected by this very thing, with women twice as likely to suffer through it as men.

What are we talking about?

Panic attacks.

They’re super scary, because they come on seemingly out of the blue, and the symptoms are so disruptive that they can interfere with your daily life and even cause you to miss work. What causes these attacks, and what can we do to stop them?

What Are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are episodes like the one described above—periods of spontaneous fear with no apparent cause, accompanied by intense physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat, dizziness, sweating, chest tightness and pain, and difficulty breathing. The symptoms can be so severe that you may feel like you’re having a heart attack or that you’ll soon pass out.

Other common symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Trembling or shaking
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Nausea or other digestive upset
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • Feelings of choking
  • Fear of losing control
  • Hyperventilation (overbreathing)

You may experience some or most of these symptoms, but they usually last for only about 10-20 minutes before subsiding.

The unpredictable nature of the attacks is one of the ways we identify them. There are other types of anxiety, but a panic attack can occur unexpectedly when you’re feeling perfectly calm. They can also occur when you’re anxious about something, such as an upcoming social event, but either way, they are sudden and extremely uncomfortable.

Fortunately, panic attacks aren’t life threatening, as the symptoms are entirely based on fear. That can be confusing, because you may not remember being afraid of anything. But suddenly you’re in the grips of this attack, which can occur at any time, anywhere. That’s really inconvenient if you’re on the highway on the way to work, in the middle of a presentation, or watching a child’s holiday recital.

Many people experience one or two panic attacks in their lifetime, but some will experience them more frequently. As mentioned above, women are more at risk.

Are Panic Attacks in Women Increasing?

Panic disorders are a type of a larger class of disorders called “anxiety disorders.” This class includes other issues like:

  • agoraphobia (fear of being somewhere you can’t escape),
  • social anxiety disorder (fear of being embarrassed or humiliated in social situations),
  • and separation anxiety disorder (fear of being away from someone to whom you’re attached).

According to a 2015 study, anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, affect up to 33.7 percent of the population. It is likely that even more people suffer from them because they are largely unreported and undertreated.

Dr. JoAnn E. Manson, chief of the division of preventive medicine at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told NBC News that she’s seen an increase in anxiety disorders over the last several years: “I think there’s little question that there’s more anxiety today,” she said, “and that women, in particular, are feeling it. I see it not only among patients but with friends, colleagues, and people I interact with daily.”

Another general practitioner stated that one in five patients she sees has come in for anxiety issues, but there are far more that wait too long to get help.

So what’s causing all this anxiety and panic?

What Causes Panic Attacks?

Doctors aren’t sure why panic attacks start. They have found that they seem to run in families, and that they often show up during big life transitions, such as when you’re getting married, having a baby, starting a new job, or moving to a new location.

In general, panic attacks are also more likely in people who have a temperament sensitive to stress. People who were abused as children seem to be more at risk, as are those that have other related disorders like depression, general anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those who are extra sensitive to their surroundings, or are perhaps “hypersensitive” to environmental cues, may also be at increased risk.

The main cause of panic attacks, however, is most frequently stress and anxiety, which is good news in a way, as these are things you can address in your life, to the point of actually curing yourself of panic attacks.

How Panic Attacks are Different in Women

Researchers have learned that in addition to experiencing panic attacks more often than men, women also experience them in a different way. Just like women have different symptoms of heart attack than men, they also have slightly different symptoms of panic attacks. 

Heart pounding is a common symptom for both genders, but women are more likely to report shortness of breath, feeling faint, and feeling smothered. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to report sweating and pain in the stomach.

According to a report in the Psychiatric Times, women may suffer more debilitating forms of the disorder, with greater frequency of attacks than men, and recurrence rates twice as high than those in men. Heart pounding is a common symptom for both genders, but women are more likely to report shortness of breath, feeling faint, andfeeling smothered. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to report sweating and pain in the stomach.

Other studies have shown key differences, but the one that comes up again and again is the respiratory difficulty—women are much more likely to have trouble breathing during a panic attack than men. Women have also been found to experience panic attacks linked with agoraphobia more often then men.

Researchers aren’t sure why this is, but recent studies have suggested that low levels of the “good mood” neurotransmitter serotonin may be a factor. Women are more likely to suffer from serotonin deficiency than men, which can leave them more sensitive to stress, and they also use serotonin differently. One study, for example, found that when serotonin levels were decreased in men, they became more impulsive, but women became more anxious.

Other studies have linked panic attacks with low levels of vitamin B6 and iron. It’s interesting to note that these nutrients are both important for the production of serotonin.

How to Treat and Cure Panic Attacks

If you’re experiencing panic attacks, talk to your doctor right away. Though they’re not usually life-threatening, they can lead to additional problems. You may fear leaving the house, for example, because you worry about suffering an unexpected attack. They can cause problems at work or at school, and can lead to alcohol or substance abuse.

In rare cases, panic attacks may be connected to a medical disorder, such as a thyroid hormone imbalance, low blood sugar levels, or a cardiovascular issue. It’s important to rule out any medical cause before proceeding with treatment. Some studies have linked panic disorder to an increased risk of heart attack or heart disease later in life, which is another reason why it’s important to seek treatment.

Once you know that your panic is attached only to anxiety, you can relax, as this is a completely treatable disorder. Most doctors will recommend therapy. A psychiatrist can help you learn new coping techniques that can help you calm an attack before it gets out of control, and help you to experience fewer attacks, in general. He or she may also prescribe medications short-term to get you feeling better right away, and to help you on the road to recovery.

There are several things you can do on your own to address and treat panic attacks, as well. Some of the most effective are listed below:

  • Get enough sleep: Studies have discovered that sleep deprivation makes you more likely to feel anxious. In 2013, UC Berkeley scientists found that when you don’t get enough sleep, the brain is more likely to fire up in a way that mimics the activity seen in anxiety disorders. “By restoring good quality sleep in people suffering from anxiety,” lead author Matthew Walker stated, “we may be able to help ameliorate their excessive worry and disabling fearful expectations.”
  • Avoid stimulants: Smoking, caffeine, and alcohol can provoke panic attacks if you are vulnerable to them, so it’s best to limit these as much as you can.
  • Learn controlled breathing: This can be especially important for women, since they are most likely to experience breathing problems during panic attacks. All you have to do is practice deep breathing. Sit comfortably, and put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose. You should feel the hand on your stomach rise more than the hand on your chest. If the hand on your chest rises more, you’re taking shallow breaths that can encourage anxiety. To get the feeling, open your mouth and inhale quickly. Deep breathing involves breathing from the lower two-thirds of the lungs, which are closer to your stomach. Once you get the feeling, inhale for the count of four from the stomach first, then the chest, then exhale through the mouth, pushing your stomach to your spine as you squeeze all the air out, usually for a count of six. Inhale-2-3-4, exhale-2-3-4-5-6. Practice for at least five minutes each day. Then use this technique when you feel a panic attack coming on. It can help you stop that attack in its tracks.
  • Exercise more often. Exercise is one of the best things you can do to deal with stress of any kind. It also boosts levels of serotonin in your brain. Studies have found a strong relation between exercise and mood-boosting, so much so that exercise is considered one of the best therapies for depression and anxiety.
  • Eat more whole foods. Natural foods feed body and mind with healthy nutrients that can help stabilize mood. If you’re eating a lot of junk food or processed food, you’re exposed to more chemicals and fat that can leave you more vulnerable to future attacks. An Australian study, for example, found that women who ate a whole-foods diet with lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins, were 32 percent less likely to experience anxiety.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation: Studies have found that meditation can help decrease panic attacks and reduce anxiety in general. If meditation intimidates you, realize that it can be really simple. All you have to do is relax, focus on your deep breathing, and allow your thoughts to come and go without reacting to them. Focus on something like a candle flame, spoken sound, or favorite picture or image, and when your mind wanders, bring it back to your focal point. Read more about making meditation work for you here.
  • Try yoga. This is another really good option for women, as it involves controlled breathing along with therapeutic stretching and exercise. A 2014 study revealed that patients with panic disorder who attended yoga classes each week for two months reduced anxiety levels and panic-related symptoms. When yoga was combined with cognitive therapy, the results were even better.

The good news is that you don’t have to suffer from these attacks anymore. With a focused treatment program that includes therapy, perhaps medications, and some of the other methods listed above, you can gradually overcome them.

Note: “Calm for Life” by Paul Wilson is a great resource you may find helpful.

Sources

“Facts & Statistics,” ADAA, https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics.

Shaun Dreisbach, “Why are anxiety disorders among women on the rise?” NBC News, 2012, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/39335628/ns/health-mental_health/t/why-are-anxiety-disorders-among-women-rise/.

Borwin Bandelow, “Epidemiology of anxiety disorders in the 21st century,” Dialogues Clin Neurosci., September 2015; 17(3):327-335, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4610617/.

Gregory A. Leskin and Javaid I. Shelkh, “Gender Differences in Panic Disorder,” Psychiatric Times, January 1, 2004, http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/gender-differences-panic-disorder.

Yonkers KA, et al., “Is the course of panic disorder the same in women and men?” Am J Psychiatry, May 1998; 155(5):596-602, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9585708.

Sheikh JL, et al., “Gender differences in panic disorder: findings from the National Comorbidity Survey,” Am J Psychiatry, January 2002; 159(1):55-8, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11772690.

Jami Cooley, “3 Causes of Panic Attacks and Signs of Anxiety in Women,” University Health News, July 19, 2017, https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/stress-anxiety/panic-attacks-and-other-signs-of-anxiety-in-women/.

Andrea N. Goldstein, et al., “Tired and Apprehensive: Anxiety Amplifies the Impact of Sleep Loss on Aversive Brain Anticipation,” Journal of Neuroscience, June 26, 2013; 33(26):10607-10615, http://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/26/10607.

Simon N. Young, “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs,” J Psychiatry Neurosci., November 2007; 32(6):394-399, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/.

P. J. Tully, et al., “Panic disorder and incident coronary heart disease: a systematic review and meta-regression in 1,131,612 persons and 58,111 cardiac events,” Psychological Medicine, October 2015; 45(14):2909-2920, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/panic-disorder-and-incident-coronary-heart-disease-a-systematic-review-and-metaregression-in-1-131-612-persons-and-58-111-cardiac-events/A6B6479DE127CDE47A7FB5CC1037FCB5.

Elizabeth A. Hoge, et al., “Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity,” J Clin Psychiatry, August 2013; 74(8):786-792, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772979/.

Camila Ferreira Vorkapic, Bernard Range, “Reducing the Symptomatology of Panic Disorder: The Effects of a Yoga Program Alone and in Combination with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy,” Front Psychiatry, 2014; 5:177, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4259001/.

 

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Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story is a novelist, health and wellness writer, and motivational speaker committed to helping people take control of their own health and well-being. She’s authored thousands of articles for a variety of health publications, and ghostwritten books for clients in the health and wellness industry. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, a motivational site for writers and other creative artists. Find more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.

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