The reality of panic attacks

Saturday January 26 2013

By Derrick Nomujuni.

Leila is a 26-year-old sales executive with one of the telecom companies in town. A few months back while taking a taxi from work , the vehicle she was travelling in was involved in a fatal head on collision, in which a boda boda rider and passenger were killed on the spot. Since then, she feels a lot of anxiety, uneasiness and finds it hard to breathe when moving in any vehicle. This has caused her to miss work on several occasions and she is currently on probation.

Dr Raymond Odokonyero, a psychiatrist at Mulago hospital, defines Leila’s experiences as panic attacks. He describes a panic attack as a sudden onset of a brief period of intense discomfort, fear and anxiety, usually accompanied by physical or mental symptoms.

When someone develops a series of these attacks over time or there is an alteration in their behaviour to avoid situations that may predispose them to these attacks, then it is termed as a panic disorder. This disorder is a small group of a whole range of other anxiety disorders but is the most common in our setting. This disorder usually manifests during adolescence and early childhood with women being two to three times more affected than men.

The effects
This condition can be particularly distressing in terms of lifestyle as the affected persons cannot travel alone in crowds, go to malls or use public transportation for fear of getting an attack. They also face issues with employment and are at risk for depression, substance abuse and even suicide.

Handling the disorder
Well, according to Dr Jane Nakiggude, a clinical psychologist at Mulago hospital, some people may recover with treatment particularly if they continue to confront situations where attacks have occurred; this is usually with the help of a close confidant.

She adds that cognitive behavioural therapy is the treatment of choice for most patients. This involves a process of altering an individual’s thought and behaviour patterns usually to reassure them that their condition is not fatal and that they are in charge. She adds that this may or may not be used with drug therapy.

She concludes by adding that overall the prognosis is good as over 85 percent of people who adhere to treatment achieve complete remission.