Benzodiazepines for Panic Attacks

Anti-Anxiety Medications

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Benzodiazepines can quickly help alleviate panic attacks.

Panic attack symptoms can strike without any warning or trigger. Seemingly out-of-the blue, a panic attack sufferer can be faced with uncomfortable physical sensations and fears. These attacks are often occur with a combination of symptoms, including:

Physical Symptoms

Excessive sweating

Shaking or trembling

Numbness and tingling sensations

Chest pain

Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath

Nausea

Heart palpitations 

Emotional Symptoms

Overwhelming sense of dread

Feelings of shame

Nervousness

Cognitive Symptoms

Fears of losing control or embarrassing oneself

Fear of dying 

Worrying that others can notice symptoms

Escalating negative thoughts

Derealization or depersonalization 

What Causes Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks that occur suddenly without any trigger are considered “unexpected” and are the type that are most frequently associated with panic disorder. With unexpected panic attacks, symptoms come on out-of-the-blue and often start off with a sense of fear, anxiety, and dread.

On the other hand, expected panic attacks can be triggered by certain events or external stimuli in the environment. For example, a person with claustrophobia may experience the symptoms of a panic attack if in an elevator or other confined space. Similarly, a person with agoraphobia may have a panic attack when faced with a crowded area, such as a concert hall, amusement park, or shopping mall.

The exact cause of panic attacks remains unknown. Certain risk factors, such having first-degree family members who suffer with panic attacks and anxiety disorders, may make one more susceptible to experiencing these symptoms. Many mental health professionals currently believe that some people are prone to panic attacks are caused by a combination of biological, genetic, and environmental factors.

How Can Benzodiazepines Help?

As a class of anti-anxiety medications, benzodiazepines work to impact the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter system. These naturally occurring chemicals are located in the brain and influence mood, sleep, and anxiety. Benzodiazepines affect GABA receptors to slow down the central nervous system and rapidly induce feelings of calm and relaxation.

Benzodiazepines are fast acting, quickly providing relief from panic attacks. Due to their tranquil effect, these medications are also referred to as sedatives or tranquilizers. As with any medication, there are some risks to taking benzodiazepines. Common benzodiazepines include:

Xanax (alprazolam)

Klonopin (clonazepam)

Valium (diazepam)

Ativan (lorazepam)

How Can I Get a Prescription?

Before your physician can determine if benzodiazepines are right for you, she must first make a diagnosis. Your doctor will look at your medical history and ask questions about your current symptoms. She made need to conduct additional tests to further rule out different medical conditions.

Additionally, your doctor may need to make referrals to other specialists, such as a psychiatrist, to make an accurate diagnosis.

Once you have been diagnosed, your doctor will then be able to review your treatment options. If diagnosed with panic disorder or other anxiety disorder, your doctor may consider prescribing a medication. She may prescribe a benzodiazepine to help alleviate your panic attack symptoms. However, treatment plans are determined by individual needs, symptoms, history, and other factors. For example, your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant or no medication, depending on your circumstance.

Benzodiazepines are typically prescribed for a limited amount of time while antidepressants may be taking time to work and the panic sufferer develops ways to manage panic attacks. Your doctor may recommend attending psychotherapy. The therapy process will involve meeting with a mental health counselor or other licensed professional on a regular basis to discuss your emotions, thoughts, and symptoms. Through the therapy process, you may learn more effective ways to cope with your current stressors, manage your panic attacks, and lower your anxiety.

One form of therapy, called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), has been found to often be very beneficial for those dealing with panic attacks. The main purpose of CBT is to help the client learn new ways of thinking and develop healthier behaviors. Through CBT, along with prescribed medication, a panic attack sufferer can anticipate better handling these symptoms and returning to previous levels of functioning. 

Sources:

Batelaan, N. M., Van BalkomStein, A. J., and Stein, D. (2012). Evidence-based Pharmacotherapy of Panic Disorder: An Update. The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 15, 403-415.

Preston, John D., O'Neal, John H., Talaga, Mary C. (2010). Handbook of Clinical Psychopharmacology for Therapist, 6th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Silverman, Harold M. (2010). The Pill Book. 14th ed. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

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