Attacked by waves of panic

Panic attacks are not a condition of the deranged or psychotic.

Panic attacks are not a condition of the deranged or psychotic.

Studies have shown that about two to four in every 100 South Africans may suffer from panic disorder at some time in their lives.

Zimasa Maweni, a trainee psychologist at Rhodes University, said that because of the high rate of crime in the country, people have a five-times greater likelihood of developing panic disorders.

Maweni said that panic disorder usually starts between late adolescence and the 30s, though children might also suffer from the condition.

She describes a panic attack disorder as a condition that manifests itself in the form of hyperventilation, flashbacks, compulsive behaviours, irrational thoughts, fears and other physical symptoms.

Maweni said: "Those patients suffering from panic disorder experience repeated feelings of intense, sudden terror or impending doom.

"These panic attacks can occur several times a week or even several times on the same day.

"The attacks reach their peak in about 10 minutes, but leave the individual emotionally drained and frightened," she said.

Maweni added that during a panic attack, people might think that they are having a heart attack or even going crazy.

She said people with the disorder often live in fear of having repeated attacks since they can occur without warning.

Maweni said many South Africans, especially black people, associate panic disorders with witchcraft and psychological problems.

"For example, some people who suffer from a panic disorder may present hypersomnia, which produces over sleepiness and, or sleep attacks. There is often an inability to rouse oneself from these sleepy feelings."

Maweni said another presentation of panic disorder is sleep apnea.

"Sleep apnea is when breathing stops temporarily, for up to a minute at a time, during sleep. This may happen several hundred times a night and it can cause you to feel sleepy during the day. Waking up choking and gasping for air is very typical in sleep apnea."

Maweni said agoraphobia is another manifestation on people suffering from panic disorder.

"People with this disorder suffer anxiety about being in places or situations from which it might be difficult or embarrassing to escape - such as being in a room full of people, or in an elevator.

"It's pretty common for people with panic disorder to develop agoraphobia because they fear help might not be available if an attack occurs. In extreme cases, persons with agoraphobia may even be afraid to leave their houses."

Zinzi Mbuqe, a doctor at East London Complex Hospital, said most individuals suffering from panic attacks are not properly diagnosed. She added that the condition should not be taken lightly.

"If you think you have been experiencing panic attacks you will need to be diagnosed by your physician or referred to a psychiatrist. While the physical symptoms may not be connected to a mental condition, often the fear of having panic attacks in public leads to phobias that may need to be treated as well."

Mbuqe said the good news is that panic disorder responds very well to treatment and if treated, people can lead healthy, normal lives.

"Treatment programmes for anxiety disorders often combine psychological counselling and medication. Your doctor may prescribe medication that relieves anxiety disorder symptoms. The drug, clomipramine, was the first medication to be approved for the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It belongs to a class of drugs called tricyclics."

Mbuqe added that more recently, certain medications known as SSRIs (for selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) have been found to be effective for controlling the condition.

The medication has been used for years to treat depression, which often develops in patients with anxiety disorders.

Benzodiazepines are another class of drugs used to treat anxiety symptoms.

This medication provides immediate relief of anxiety, but it is not used for long-term treatment because of their potential for addiction.