Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Understanding Panic Attacks

        Health | Anxiety

Panic Attack Treatment
Prozac is one of the most common antidepressants
Prozac is one of the most common antidepressants
Jonathan Nourok/Getty Images

How can people overcome panic attacks? They have three effective options: antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and therapy. Medication and therapy are about equally effective -- they work between 60 percent and 90 percent of the time [source: American Psychiatric Association].

SSRI antidepressants, like Paxil and Zoloft, help prevent panic attacks for many people. SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibiters. Essentially, SSRI antidepressants increase the amount of serotonin in your brain. They usually take effect two to four weeks after the patient begins taking them [source: Bourne]. Tricyclic antidepressants also treat panic disorder. These antidepressants increase the amount of norepinephrine in the brain. But these antidepressants cause more negative side effects than SSRIs. Both of these kinds of antidepressants are safe to take for years, but they should be gradually tapered off, not stopped suddenly.

If antidepressants don't work, anti-anxiety drugs, such as Xanax, might. Xanax is a benzodiazepine, which works as a tranquillizer. It increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which stabilizes anxiety [source: Bourne]. Unlike antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs work almost immediately, but they are usually best to only take for a few weeks to a few months. They quickly cause a dependency, which means that if you stop taking them cold turkey, episodes of intense anxiety might ensue. For this reason, doctors generally recommend that patients taper off anti-anxiety medications if they decide to stop using them.

The third option is therapy, which can be used as an alternative to or in conjunction with medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy has proved helpful for people trying to overcome panic attacks. The American Psychiatric Association explains that this kind of therapy consists of five parts:

  • Learning: Learning about panic disorder, its symptoms and possible treatment can give you hope and help you recognize that you are not alone.
  • Monitoring: You start to record when your symptoms come up and the environment in which they occur.
  • Breathing: Learning breathing exercises helps you prepare for a panic attack.
  • Rethinking: Your therapist teaches you to take on a new outlook and see your attacks realistically.
  • Exposing: You gradually learn to face panic-inducing situations.

Your therapist will guide you through all of these steps. Overall, the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to change how you think about your attacks. The more you learn about the condition, the better you understand it and realize that panic attacks are not dangerous and won't kill you. If you know what situations typically instigate an attack and what breathing techniques to use, you'll be better prepared and will begin to fear the attacks less. Finally, simulating the feelings or situations where attacks occur will perhaps let you overcome attacks completely. [source: helpguide.org].

If all else fails and you experience a panic attack, don't be discouraged: There are still some methods that can help you get through it as smoothly as possible. We'll take a look at what to do during a panic attack on the next page.