On Your Mind: Is this a panic attack?

Dear Tom,

Last year was a hard one for me emotionally and my husband thinks I may be having some panic attacks. Now and then I get really nervous, start sweating and my heart feels like it’s going to beat out of my chest. It can get so intense that, if I’m worried it might happen, I won’t even leave the house because I hate feeling like I’m about to die or something. Some days are worse than others, but it seems like the panicky feelings come at least a few times a month. How do doctors diagnose panic attacks and what can I do about them, if this is what I have? Is this a condition that I might have passed on to my kids?

Dear Mom,

I’m sorry you’ve been experiencing panic attacks because I know they can be scary and even overwhelming. Panic attacks are a form of anxiety and they can happen without warning or without any obvious reason. However, sometimes they occur as a direct response to a certain stimulus – like riding in a tight elevator or being in the middle of a large crowd.

Experts aren’t sure what causes panic attacks and panic disorder. But the body has a natural response when you’re stressed or in danger. It speeds up your heart, makes you breathe faster, and gives you a burst of energy. It gets you ready to either cope with or run away from real or perceived danger. It’s the classic “fight or flight response.” Panic attacks and panic disorder may be linked to an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroid) or a family history of panic disorder.

Even though you may feel like you’re having a heart attack, panic attacks have not been directly linked to serious heart attacks or sudden death. But if they happen to you pretty regularly, they can definitely interfere with your normal day-to-day life. And they may contribute to — or be a symptom of — other illnesses like depression, phobias, fatigue, substance abuse, and in some rare cases suicide. But even when the panic disorder stands on its own, these attacks are terrifying and very uncomfortable.

One piece of good news is that panic symptoms are very treatable. Treatment for panic attacks includes talk therapy and medicine. But you MUST talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking benzodiazapines, which are normally prescribed to control panic attacks. Benzodiazapines include medicines like Xanax, Valium and Ativan. There IS a risk of addiction with this type of medication. So have this important conversation with your doctor before you begin any type of treatment. Also, you may wan to look into the natural remedies available at local drugstores or whole food stores.

And yes, there have been studies showing a family history of panic attacks as a contributing factor, so your children may have a higher risk of experiencing panic symptoms than someone who has no family history. However, if that does happen, you’ll know what they’re going through and you’ll be able to help them get the right care and treatment. It will also help them to see that their own mom has recognized her symptoms and has gone to the doctor for treatment. Take care.


Tom Petrizzo serves as CEO of Ozark Guidance and has degrees in social work and law. He has spent the last 20 years managing non-profit centers in Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Arkansas. He has also served as adjunct faculty at the social work graduate program at three large universities. He’s married to Teri Classick, a licensed clinical social worker, and they have two daughters. When he’s not at work, Tom likes to jog, bike ride, read and he even belted out the National Anthem lately at a Northwest Arkansas Naturals Game!

Tom would be happy to answer your questions and read what’s on your mind. Click the butterfly icon below to fill out an anonymous submission form with your question or concern. The form contains NO identifying information and is designed to give local women an online place to share concerns with a person qualified to offer feedback. Tom will be back each month to answer another woman’s question.