A new way to banish panic attacks

Sweaty palms, spinning head, racing heart and blocked lungs. That's how someone having a panic, or anxiety attack, describes the sudden, intense changes they go through.

But now, a new device is training patients to breathe better and banish panic attacks.

For the first time in months, 52-year-old Marge Fekete is able to have coffee. Doctors had banned caffeine because of her panic disorder.

"When you're having a panic attack, you think you're dying," she said.

Her struggle started more than three decades ago after two personal tragedies.

"Found my father dead when I was 12 and then at age 20, my brother was murdered," she said.

Eighteen months ago, the panic attacks that started in her teens skyrocketed after she changed jobs and moved. She'd have an attack every few days.

"I was a prisoner in my own home for about six months," she said.

"In order to treat the physical symptoms, we talk about relaxation and we've taught the patients how to do deep abdominal breathing," said Alicia Kaplan, MD, psychiatrist, Allegheny Health Network, Pittsburgh.

Dr. Kaplan also added a new treatment tool called the freespira breathing system.

Patients wear a cannula that is attached to a tablet. They follow a program to measure their breathing. Patients breathe in when they hear a tone go up and exhale when the tone goes down.

"They can follow their respiratory rate and their CO2 level," Kaplan said.

Fekete trained 17 minutes, twice a day for four weeks. She says she's not cured, but along with medication and therapy, it has made a big difference.

"I have my life back. It's normal again," she said.

Back to the activities and drinks that she loves.

In a recent trial of the freespira device, 98 percent of the patients reported a reduction in panic attacks and 64 percent were free from episodes after the treatment. The device is not covered by all insurance companies.

If you would like a more information, check out medical breakthroughs on the web at Ivanhoe.com/mental-health.

BACKGROUND: Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in the U.S. Of that 40 million, six million suffer from panic disorder. Often, panic attacks will strike out of the blue, and they can even occur when relaxed or asleep. A panic attack can be a one-time incidence or the person can have recurring episodes. Panic attacks that are recurrent are usually triggered by a specific situation. Panic attacks could be a symptom of other disorders, such as panic disorder, social phobia or depression. Panic disorder is characterized by having recurring panic attacks and major changes in behavior or persistent anxiety. Panic attacks can occur anywhere and at any time, but commonly, they strike when away from home. They can develop slowly or abruptly, but usually reach their peak within ten minutes. The following symptoms can occur in a full-blown panic attack:
Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
Heart palpitations or a racing heart
Chest pain or discomfort
Trembling or shaking
Choking feeling
Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
Nausea or upset stomach
Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
Numbness or tingling sensations
Hot or cold flashes
(Source: http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics, http://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/panic-attacks-and-panic-disorders.htm)

TREATMENT: The Freespira breathing system is an at-home therapy for patients with panic disorder to train their breathing and learn how to control it. FDA-approved in December 2013, Freespira includes a handheld tablet with the Freespira Application (App) and a small sensor that measures breathing rate and the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled in each breath. The treatment is a four week program with easy-to-follow visual and audio instructions from the App. The sensors send the data to the App for your healthcare provider to examine. Nearly 70 percent of patients reported having no more panic attacks after twelve months. (Source: http://freespira.com/what-is-freespira/)

HOW TO HELP SOMEONE HAVING A PANIC ATTACK: Short and shallow breaths, sweating, and trembling are all signs of someone having a panic attack. Someone having an attack cannot just be talked out of it or be told to calm down; their brains think they are in danger and rational thoughts won't help. Instead, get them to focus on their breathing by taking slow, deep breaths with them. Another tip is to have them march in place to release stress hormones. To help avoid panic attacks, break things they are scared of down into steps and don't be too pushy. (Source: http://www.thesite.org/mental-health/anxiety-ocd-and-phobias/helping-someone-with-panic-attacks-12376.html)

Stephanie Waite
If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com