By Kasmiah Mustapha
ALTHOUGH it is normal to be anxious, prolonged attacks are debilitating and must be treated. KASMIAH MUSTAPHA looks at the causes of such attacks.
HAVING a panic attack or feeling anxious is normal when you're stressed or in an unpleasant situation.
Some people may be more prone to such attacks, with debilitating effects (to a point which they no longer function normally). When this happens, a panic attack becomes an illness that must be treated.
Its symptoms are typical of an anxiety disorder, a common mental illness.
The symptoms cause mood disturbances and hamper one's thinking, behaviour and physiological activity.
Major types of anxiety disorders are panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and phobia.
University Malaya Department of Psychological Medicine consultant psychiatrist Dr Ahmad Hatim Sulaiman says that although anxiety is normal, it becomes abnormal when it results in prolonged distress and impairment in function.
People who suffer from frequent panic attacks or have an obsessive tendency to do things again and again cannot function normally and their quality of life is affected.
"Those with a severe condition often refuse to leave the house as they are afraid of having a panic attack in public places.
"They eventually develop low self-esteem and become depressed. Their condition also causes distress to their families."
Common symptoms of anxiety disorders are restlessness, difficulty concentrating, extreme fatigue and difficulty sleeping.
Physical symptoms include palpitations, shortness of breath, a choking sensation, muscle tension, tremors, sweating and dizziness.
"Unfortunately, many who suffer from anxiety disorders are unaware that it is an illness that must be treated," says Dr Abdul Hatim.
"They think the symptoms are caused by a weak personality or mind. The disorder is caused by neurochemical structural changes in our body and brain and requires treatment."
Sufferers should seek treatment to ensure they are not suffering from heart disease or other illnesses before seeking psychiatric evaluation to determine the cause and treatment of the disorder.
"We have to look at the cause of the anxiety. Some people can be genetically predisposed to anxiety disorders. Once a diagnosis is made, effective treatments are available.
"Treatment can take weeks or months. However, if you treat it early, you can improve within two weeks."
Dr Abdul Hatim says most people do not seek treatment due to fears of stigmatisation.
"There should be no stigma. Mental health problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder affect less than one per cent of the population.
"Those who suffer from anxiety disorders and depression make up the majority."
Panic disorder is the most common type of anxiety disorder. In most cases, it lasts between 15 and 30 minutes daily. It can be triggered by simple tasks such as driving in heavy traffic or being in confined places.
"Some have panic attacks when they are thinking of one. If they are in a place where they feel they cannot escape, they will have a panic attack."
A generalised anxiety disorder is defined as having chronic worries about every detail and situation. Those who suffer from it will spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about their relationships, work, finances and health.
The constant worrying results in poor sleep, muscle strain which causes headaches, body aches and memory impairment. If the symptoms persist for more than six months, treatment must be sought.
"Their behaviour will not only cause distress to them but also to their spouse, children, friends and colleagues. If you worry about everything, you will not be able to think rationally."
Those who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder are usually victims of crime or survivors of tragic incidents, says Dr Abdul Hatim.
Victims of crime such as robbery, rape and attempted murder, and survivors of tragedies such as landslides, wars and natural disasters find it difficult to move on.
They may suffer from frequent nightmares, distress, be easily startled and find it difficult to sleep. They will have panic attacks if they hear or see something associated with the incident.
A person suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) will perform certain acts or rituals repeatedly until he is satisfied that it is done correctly. Even then he will still have doubts whether the act has been performed well.
"Not everyone who wants everything in order has OCD. It will only be diagnosed as a disease if you are obsessed about something and you do it repeatedly. Obsession is the thought, compulsion the ritual.
"OCD is one of the worst conditions in terms of causing disability. It can impair one's life. The person knows that his behaviour is irrational but he cannot resist doing it. It is beyond his control."