August 21, 2012

When Panic Attacks

We use the term "panic" all the time, saying we panicked at our job interview, or had a panic attack when our child wandered into the street, but what do psychologists mean when they talk about panic attacks or panic disorder?

Panic isn't the nervousness you feel the morning of your presentation at work, the stress you feel when you're running late for an appointment, or the anxiety you feel when your partner is mad at you. A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear, accompanied by a flood of physiological symptoms; it develops abruptly and usually lasts no more than fifteen minutes. It may be triggered by something specific (e.g., public speaking, enclosed spaces, a stressful thought), or may come out of the blue.

The DSM defines a panic attack as a discrete period of intense fear, in which at least four of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reach a peak within ten minutes:

Physiological symptoms: palpitations, pounding heart, or increased heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; shortness of breath or a feeling of smothering; a feeling of choking; chest pain or discomfort; nausea; feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint; chills or hot flushes; and numbness or tingling, often in the extremities. Psychological symptoms: fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy; and derealization or depersonalization, i.e., feeling unreal, disembodied, or detached from your surroundings.

What does a panic attack feel like?

It feels like terror in your belly, an elephant sitting on your chest, and going crazy. Your heart feels like it's pounding out of your chest, the room seems to be closing in, and you can't breathe. Many people experiencing panic are convinced they're having a heart attack--in fact, over 40% of individuals who show up the emergency room with chest pain are actually suffering from a panic attack. On top of the discomfort of the physiological symptoms of panic, the feeling of derealization can make panic lonely and confusing because what's happening in your mind doesn't match what's happening in the external world; it's hard to understand why other people seem to be calmly and happily going about their business when, for you, the world seems to be ending.

A panic attack is not a DSM diagnosis, but panic disorder is. Panic disorder is diagnosed when recurrent panic attacks result in persistent concern about further attacks, worry about the consequences or implications of the attacks, or significant change in behaviour for fear of future attacks (e.g., refusing to give presentations at work, declining social invitations). At worst, individuals with panic disorder develop agoraphobia--the fear of being out in public, or in a place where they could panic--and begin to avoid crowded public spaces, or avoid leaving the home at all.

A panic attack can happen in the context of panic disorder, depression, or another psychological problem, or can simply be an isolated incident during a stressful period or situation. During a panic attack, it's not important to try to figure out what happened or what's wrong; instead, just focus on breathing slowly and trying to calm down. It can help to realize that you're having a panic attack and to remember that thinking you're going crazy and thinking you're having a heart attack are symptoms of panic. If you experience recurrent panic attacks, it may be time to see your doctor or consult a psychologist. Panic is eminently treatable and responds well to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), among other treatments.

August 11, 2012

Letting Go

What is letting go?

We use the phrase "let it go" all the time, encouraging our friend to stop emailing his ex-girlfriend six months after the break-up or our partner to stop bringing up that thing we did that time. Letting go isn't easy--we're all attached to our ideas of how things should be, and we all have feelings, experiences, and relationships that we don't want to see end--but becoming too strongly attached or holding on for too long can create problems.

How does holding on create problems?

When we're holding on with all our might to a person, idea, or era, we become rigid and inflexible, and we miss out on opportunities. Think of the guy who passes up job offer after job offer while he continues to pour money into his failing start-up. Think of the former competitive gymnast who continues to train religiously into adulthood, trying to preserve her identity as an elite athlete. Think of the time you didn't enjoy a party or a vacation because you couldn't let go of your idea of how the party or the vacation should be or how you thought it was going to be.

The first step in letting go is to realize that you're holding on. There's a story about letting go that we tell in the mindfulness-based stress reduction course: in India, a clever way of catching a monkey was to attach a coconut to a tree, cut a small hole in it, and place a banana inside. The hole was large enough for a monkey to put his hand through to grab the banana, but too small for the monkey to remove his fist. All the monkey had to do to get free was to let go of the banana, but most didn't, remaining stuck to the tree. The moral of the story is that we often act like monkeys, not realizing that our own clinging is what's making us stuck.

Letting go can be exciting and liberating. The day the start-up guy files for bankruptcy is the same day he can accept an exciting new position; the day the gymnast hangs up her leotard is the same day she can register for the beginner's piano lessons she's been thinking about for years. The moment you let go of the vacation you hoped for, you can start enjoying the vacation you're having.

The next time you feel stuck, try asking yourself what's my banana? What can I let go?