Understanding Panic Attacks

Written by T.G. Rand

People prone to panic attacks are missing a genetic mechanism that regulates CCK, a peptide released during periods of stress.

There's no reason to panic. You're moving through your day without hitch, when suddenly, out of the blue, comes a racing heart, profuse sweating, shortness of breath, chest pains.

Choosing better thoughts
Up to 20 percent of those who suffer from chronic panic attacks attempt suicide.
Treatments for panic disorder are effective in 85 to 90 percent of patients.
The tranquilizer, Xanax, arrests panic attacks, but it's addictive and recommended for short-term use only.
Antidepressants such as Zoloft can be effective against anxiety on a long-term basis.
Cognitive or behavioral therapy helps patients identify and cope with the "anxiety triggers" that cause attacks.
Breathing deeply and evenly is a proven way to derail an attack in its early stages.  

You panic. "People experiencing panic attacks often believe they are having heart attacks," says Dr. Mark Giesecke, a psychiatrist practicing in Flagstaff, Ariz., and although a panic attack won't kill you, notes Giesecke, people who are prone to panic attacks often remake their social lives to avoid situations that seem to trigger attacks. 

What has eluded experts thus far is the cause: What makes some people so prone to recurrent panic attacks, a condition believed to afflict some five million people in the U.S? 

Now, Canadian researchers believe they've zeroed in on a genetic culprit: cholocystokinin or CCK for short, a peptide found in the brain and the stomach that is released after periods of stress. Researchers have shown that in certain people, injecting CCK triggers panic attacks within seconds; in others, it seems to do nothing. 

Dr. Jacques Bradwejn, chief of psychiatry at Canada's Royal Ottawa Hospital, discovered that a defective gene appears to hamper the body's regulation of CCK levels. As a result, the peptide can run rampant, causing the symptoms that so disturb its sufferers. 

Bradwejn's results seem to square with the observations of other experts who find that a tendency toward recurrent panic attacks seems to run in families. Parents suffering from the condition frequently bring their children for treatment and children bring their parents. 

"We've got a word for it," says Dr. Stuart Shipko of the Panic Disorders Institute in California. 

"Generational panic," he says.

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