Adrenaline can be your friend - but what happens when it explodes into full-blown panic attacks?
Fear frenzies of psychological origin can induce pounding heart, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, dizziness or faintness, numbness or tingling and fear of dying or going crazy. But don't self-diagnose a panic attack. Such disturbances can also have physical causes: blood sugar imbalance, a heart condition or asthma. Always seek medical attention if your episodes become commonplace.
The first line of treatment is to breathe. In fact, say some experts, determined deep breathing can change terror into excitement. If you're feeling over the edge, breathe deeply into your abdomen for at least 10 minutes and then sit quietly for five to 10 minutes more.
First aid items to have on hand include the flower essence Rescue Remedy, an essential oil whose aroma you will find calming (lavender or neroli work for many), or the right homeopathic remedy (see our experts' comments).
If you're prone to frequent, full-out attacks, the reseach lit says the most effective help comes from c ognitive behavioural therapy (often covered by OHIP).
Panic sufferers also report relief from the Alexander Technique, homeopathy, hypnotherapy, tai chi and chi gung and meditation.
If you've been fearful for years, you may also want to look into your general health. While allopathy sees no lasting physical harm from panic attacks, holistic types warn that pumping out all those stress hormones can, in time, compromise your adrenal function, leading to general health problems that will need treatment.
What the experts say "People need treatment when they have recurrent attacks that lead them to worry about having additional ones, and their attacks are causing distress or impairing their lives. At this point there's little evidence that (a bona fide panic attack) could be physically dangerous. But heart conditions, hypoglycemia and other medical conditions can cause some of these symptoms. People should talk to their family doctor, try self-help - I suggest doing a web search for self-help materials that emphasize a cognitive behavioural approach - and should not hesitate to ask for a referral, given that we've got very good medications and evidence-based treatments in cognitive behavioural therapy."
NEIL RECTOR , psychologist and head, Anxiety Disorders Clinic, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto
"Panic attacks put you at risk of nutritional deficiency. (When) you go through the whole stress cycle, your body uses a lot of antioxidants and B vitamins. To deal with stress better, eat well and stay away from nicotine, refined stressors (sugar, caffeine, alcohol) and major food allergens such as cow's milk products, wheat and preservatives or food colourings. Some preservatives can be very strong triggers for panic and/or asthma attacks. Panic can trigger asthma, and vice versa. Some (panic) patients get adrenal fatigue because the adrenals are constantly working. Basic symptoms are decreased immunity, fatigue, insomnia and digestive problems. Adrenal fatigue requires professional care."
JULIE CHEN , naturopath, director, Friends of Alternative and Complementary Therapies, Toronto
"The key is to see panic attacks as an opportunity to identify and release one's fears. A common (underlying) cause (accessed through hypnosis ) is that people feel they've lost the love of their life. The ultimate root cause of all fear and panic is the illusion of separation from Source. Relationships with people can mirror that larger split. You start working with forgiveness, even self-forgiveness, because often we blame ourselves for not having lived up to something, or not having overcome something.'
VIRGINIA HART NELSON , hypnotherapist, energy healer, Toronto
"The message the body is sending with fear is that things are scary. We work to transform that to the message that things are potentially exciting. The body responses of (fearful) shaking and sounds need to be heard and honoured, which makes room for new responses. We also say that fear is excitement without the breath. Quite literally, the oxygen from deep breathing is what changes fear to excitement. A person who has panic attacks shouldn't try this without some guidance. People who are having attacks think they're breathing, but (I observe often) they're breathing shallowly and not getting full oxygen. Coaching literally slows things down and gives the person the tools they need.
HELEN KAUFHOLZ , MTS, retreat leader, Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center, Livingston Manor, NY
"People should see a homeopath when conventional medicines are unable to regulate or lower the frequency of their panic attacks or if they feel they have too many side effects. When a person is aware that an attack is on the way, Ignatia 6CH can help prevent the onset. Natrum muriaticum 6CH is useful when the cause of the fear is other people. For a type A personality male, the remedy is Nux vomica 6CH. That deals with control issues. For performance anxiety, take gelsemium 6CH, for instance the night before an exam. 6CH is known to be a safe potency for self-help. But people should not be on these for longer than 24 hours at a time without a homeopath's supervision."
DANIEL LUPU , homeopath, Toronto