Medical Conditions related to Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Medical Conditions Related to Anxiety & Panic Attacks
There are many medical conditions that are associated with anxiety and panic attacks. It’s worth taking a look at a few of them just to let you know how they are linked with panic attacks.
Can periods cause panic attacks?
Feeling anxious is one of the most common symptoms of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS). Anxiety can also occur in other times of our lives when there are great hormonal changes such as pre-menopause (the period of time before the onset of menopause), post child birth and puberty. The symptoms include panic attacks, sweating, anxiety linked with depression, nervousness, etc.
The premenstrual period causes women to endure many unpleasant symptoms triggered by water retention. The water retention irritates the nervous system which can lead to panic attacks (if you are susceptible to them), feeling anxious and irritableness.
Blood sugar levels also tend to be unstable at this time, so women tend to want more sugary things especially just before their period. This is a time for you to be even more careful how you eat. It’s recommended to eat more complex carbohydrates, follow my eating plan program and maybe take supplements as well. Undertaking exercise is also a great way of relieving the symptoms of nervousness. It’s a time you must look after yourself with relaxation, diet and stress reduction techniques which fits nicely into the ethos of my recovery program.
I have discussed before insulin and adrenaline, and the effects these chemicals have on anxious people’s bodies. Enzymes are similar. When our bodies are out of balance sometimes enzymes don’t do what they should especially when we eat. Enzymes can cause complex and simple carbohydrates to be burned incorrectly leading to problems.
What are enzymes?
Enzymes are proteins and they control the speed of chemical reactions in our bodies. Without enzymes, reactions would take place too slowly to keep us alive. Some enzymes, like the ones in our digestive system, break down large molecules into smaller ones. Others, like the enzymes that make DNA, use small molecules to build up bigger complex ones. Enzymes also help cells communicate with each other making sure cell growth is under control.
Enzymes need vitamins to do their job. This is sometimes called co-enzymes. Without us eating the correct vitamins our enzymes do not work properly. If we don’t burn carbohydrates properly then a by-product of this is lactic acid. Research has shown too much lactic acid in susceptible people can lead to panic attacks.
Why our enzymes might not be functioning properly?
One of the main reasons is having a poor diet. Consistently eating junk food for too long can harm your body. The other reason is maybe your body requires certain nutrients more than the average person. So the answer is what my program is advocating i.e. your diet must change. You must eat more nutritious food along with supplements just to give you that added boost. Changing your diet is a long term strategy along with a lifestyle change. Often the feel good factor can take a little while to show when you start improving your diet. Remember everything should be done in balance. I certainly would not go overtop the top and live off unhealthy amounts of vitamins. All vitamins tablets I recommend on my resource page show the daily allowances you should have, so make sure you follow this. Combine this with the others steps in my program and you will not go far wrong. My Golden Rule on Diet will cover this in more detail.
Why are women prone to panic attacks?
Research has shown women are much more prone to have panic attacks than men. Women are about twice as likely to have a panic attack as their male counterparts. The exact reasons for this are unclear but some factors that come into the equation are women have to go through more bodily changes such as menopause, giving birth and periods. They also tend to be more emotional which is a catalyst for panic attacks.
What triggers panic attacks
Physical ailments such as migraines and depression are also linked to panic attack disorder. Again research has shown women are much more likely to suffer these conditions. During menstruation and menopausal periods women who are prone to anxiety are much more likely to develop panic attacks. When women encounter hormonal changes in their bodies they cause great chemical changes which can make the body unbalanced. Progesterone and oestrogen can fluctuate causing loss of appetite and energy levels can drop. These chemical changes can create mood changes and have a detrimental effect on their health. If you add the stress of the stomach cramps and the blood loss during periods you can see why periods cause real anguish and can trigger panic attacks.
How to Improve your Health?
One of the best ways to reduce anxiety which tends to trigger migraines is by having a weekly exercise program. Exercise has such a calming effect on the body after a reasonable level of ‘work out’ has been achieved. You need to push yourself so that you feel out of breath but not too much as you feel overwhelmed. This produces lots of the feel good chemicals in the body and can really alleviate tension in your body. The other big factor that can help is diet. Eat natural healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables. These produce balanced sugar levels especially if you combine them with proteins (such as fish, eggs, nuts, etc.) and complex carbohydrates (like wholemeal bread, crackers, etc). Both Exercise and Diet form part of my Golden Rules.
Alcohol and caffeine are stimulants. Although they make you feel better in the short term, after they wear off they can trigger panic attacks and make the strength of the panic attack much worse. I will write about smoking later but it’s safe to say it doesn't help either. Giving up smoking maybe is a step too far at the moment but bear in mind they can contribute to panic attacks as well.
Just simple techniques like getting enough sleep or relaxing more can make such a difference especially if you’re suffering from migraines.
I also think a great way to stop reoccurring panic attacks is sharing and relaxing with your friends and family. Just sharing a problem and getting a point of view from a loved one can often help. When you’re feeling anxious sometimes your thinking can be distorted and things may seem far worse than they actually are.
Keep a diary of how you feel and what you think, because this is a great way to recognise the areas you need to tackle to recover from this. Sometimes it’s not obvious that there is a pattern in your thoughts and what common parts of day you feel anxious. Maybe skipping breakfast is making you feel anxious in the mornings. Perhaps your worrying thoughts at night are escalating the attacks the next day. Meditation and breathing exercises certainly can help.
Finally I would say there is no harm in seeing your doctor. You may be lucky and get referred to see a specialist who can help you one to one. Also there is no reason why medication should not be used if you are going through a particularly bad period.
Why are women suffering more panic attacks than men?
This is a very good question. Dr Claire Weekes reported that around 10% of her patients were men. If you look on the web it seems to be around the 30%. It’s possibly higher as men are less willing to come forward and seek treatment. However it’s changing as more high profile cases have come to light which really indicates how common it is in both male and females.
Research indicates that a significant proportion of panic attacks in men are down to alcohol and diet. Alcohol and diet can have a profound effect of blood sugar levels which seem to directly relate to panic attacks. This was a major issue for me and I saw probably a 50% improvement in my condition when I stopped drinking and changed my diet.
There maybe one other reason why women suffer more than men and this psychological. Young women tend to have a more tentative approach to danger than men. They don’t have that inbuilt feeling on the whole to prove themselves like men do. Women tend not to put themselves in harms way when their potentially in a dangerous situation. Boys on the other hand will tend to climb trees more, jump obstacles, drive go-carts down hills, etc. The testosterone in boys make them more active, and gives them a tendency to meet danger head on to prove their a man.
In doing this they are less likely to feel scared of a situation. Women on the other hand have a more thoughtful approach and can tend to see the potential dangers. They do not have such a risk taking attitude. Also poor nutrition and lack of exercise in young women can have more of a negative effect than on them than a man’s body especially prior to menstruation.
It’s interesting to note that Agoraphobia was a term coined by the German neurologist Westphal in 1871. In his original description, Westphal described four patients who had attacks of anxiety in public places. Interestingly, they were all men and he described how several of them used alcohol to reduce their fears. The term 'agoraphobia' derives from the Greek, the word 'agora' meaning the market place.
This term, Westphal felt was appropriate because it described how people felt vulnerable in public places and in particular where there was no obvious exit. At the same time, another neurologist, Benedikt, coined another term (Platzschwindel) which translated from the German, means dizziness in public places. Over the years, this syndrome has been called many things, one of the most convoluted terms being the "phobic anxiety depersonalisation syndrome!"
Mitral Valve Prolapse and anxiety (MVP)
People who suffer from mitral valve prolapse (MVP) are significantly higher in anxiety sufferers then in the general population. More women than men suffer from it (about 3:1) and it seems to be a largely inherited condition.
How is Mitral Valve Prolapse related to anxiety and panic attacks ?
Well let’s start with the anatomy of the hearts. The heart is divided into the upper, lower, left and right chambers. The mitral valve separates the upper and lower chambers on the left side of the heart. The blood should flow through the valve as it opens, and then stop as the valve shuts. If the valve is slightly faulty it does not shut properly and this allows a small amount of blood to seep back through to the upper chamber. It’s generally considered not to be a health issue and could be considered an imperfection like having a mole on your face.
It’s one of the most common cardiac findings and is usually harmless. The heart functions perfectly normally and it will not degenerate as you get older. If you wish to be diagnosed then an echocardiogram can take a picture of the valve itself, although it does not always show. People with MVP have a slightly elevated risk of an infection of the mitral called endocarditis but it’s very rare.
What is Mitral Valve Prolapse Syndrome/Dysautonomia?
Around 40% of people with mitral valve prolapse also have an imbalance of the automatic nervous system. This is called Dysautonomia. The automatic nervous system is made of two systems – the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. (This was here.) These control automatic bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, etc. When this system is out of balance it can cause all sorts of sensations in the body such as anxiety, panic attacks, palpitations, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), etc. The symptoms are known as Mitral valve syndrome. People are typically diagnosed between 20 - 40 years old, but symptoms can show up in teenagers. The usual process is for the symptoms to show first before the MVP shows up. Ninety-eight present of people with MVP Syndrome/Dysautonomia have a healthy heart. The majority of symptoms are caused by an out-of-balance nervous system.
It’s worth noting that is most cases Mitral valve Prolapse Syndrome/Dysautonomia are caused by some life event that is stressful or not looking after one’s self. This could be bereavement, divorce, exams, losing a job, poor diet, etc.
If you think about it, in times of stress the body needs to pump lots of blood around the body and especially to the vital organs. If it didn’t do this our bodies would feel weak and dizzy. The body responds to this by speeding up the heart rate. If the person senses this and thinks ‘I’m having a heart attack’, (what person wouldn’t be scared by this thought) this increases the bodily sensations. This cycle of worrying thoughts often makes the problem worse.
If you’re concerned about MVP then go and see you doctor and tests can be carried out to put your mind at rest.
I am convinced I suffer from MVP. I did notice occasionally my heart use to skip a beat or double in my late teens but it never happened more than a handful times. Once I started suffering anxiety and panic attacks I had palpitations quite often and I was totally convinced I had a heart problem.
I also use to get panic attacks whilst exercising and I often felt out of breath quite easily when walking up stairs, etc. This was caused because my body was so tense and stressed it didn’t take much for very sensation to be amplified a hundred times. I went to the doctor complaining of heart palpitations and difficulty breathing and was referred for an ECG. It proved fine but of course I did not believe the diagnosis and was still convinced something was wrong with me.
I know my granddad suffered from palpitations but he lived well into 80’s and died of old age. My mother suffers from palpitations and has had a heart monitor strapped to her chest and varying tests. But surprise, surprise it’s never caused her any real problems. I have also inherited the MVP fault and I’m susceptible to heart palpitations. Since I followed my own program of recovery (The Golden Rules) I very rarely get any palpitations. Just by following the Golden Rules of diet, changing my thoughts, relaxation, avoiding stress, exercise, breathing techniques, etc. It’s cleared up. I also don’t react with anxious thoughts when I get heart palpitations. I have developed a new relationship with my bodily symptoms. I don’t react like I use to.
One final note you should bear in mind is the heart is a muscle. Any muscle can be strengthened with exercise. You may feel like doing exercise is the worst thing you can do, but it’s the best. When the heart gets stronger it slows down as it doesn’t have to work as hard. More oxygen is getting through to the blood stream and more food for the energy cells. By jogging, playing football, tennis etc. you are strengthening your heart to be more robust and cope with daily stresses.
Inner ear problems causing panic attacks
Problems with the inner ear have been linked to panic attacks. The inner ear is where the bodies balancing system lies. There is fluid in our inner ear and inside our head which moves when we move. However the fluid must maintain its level. So it’s similar to a glass of water being tilted but the water remains level.
The ear works by picking up messages using the sensitive nerve endings and relaying them to the brain to indicate the body’s position. The brain can then decide on what’s the best position to maintain balance. However if there is a swelling in the inner ear caused by an allergy or infection, the fluid can swell up and press against the sensitive nerve endings. The messages then become muddled and problems occur. This brings on dizziness and sick feelings which can make a person feel unwell. It’s no joke to feel like your surroundings are spinning around.
One of the many symptoms is
- The ground may feel like it’s giving way
- You may have dizziness or light headiness
- It may feel like the floor is tilting to one side
If your prone to anxiety these sensations can cause panic attacks as people tend to assume something is drastically wrong with them.
Our inner ear system is crucial in determining
•Our sense of balance
•The way we relate to our space
It is worth noting our ears are affected by sound, gravity, temperature, motion, barometric pressure, etc. Our ears are also interconnected to our eyes.
If your inner ear is damaged in some way, one or more of these functions can be thrown off and result in any of the following:
Loss of balance and co-ordination, problems with vision and hearing, problems with sense of direction, compromised sense of time, motion sensitivity, problems with memory and concentration, hyperactivity and over activity, and obsessions and compulsions.
Anxiety is a strange thing. Symptoms which cause anxiety like feeling unsteady of our feet can perpetuate the problem. We all tend to fear the worst when we experience sensations we haven’t experienced before, and this can activate the body’s hypothalamus.
There are several conditions of the inner ear which have the same symptoms as anxiety but Meniere’s is one of the common ones. It’s diagnosed by having
- Hearing loss
- Ringing on the ears
If you’re having panic attacks on elevators, buses, panes, cars, boats (which are all enclosed spaces which tend to cause panic attacks anyway), you may want to get it checked out by a doctor just to rule out inner ear problems.
There is a book called ‘Phobia free’ where the author Harold N. Levinson maintains that 90% of all phobic behaviour is the result of a problem in the inner-ear system. He claims although the phobia is triggered by actual trauma, the psychological stress predisposes the individual to react in a way for panic attacks and phobias to occur.
Our inner-ear or cerebellar-vestibular system (CVS) can produce symptoms of nausea, dizziness and difficulty walking so there may be some facts in his theory.
Inner ear problems
Levinson believes that 20% of the population has sort of inner ear problem. He claims not all people who have the problem develop phobias, because they learn to compensate for this by using other techniques to overcome their phobias.
He does give a list of all the things that may increase your risk including old age, repeated ear infections, lots of air travel, concussions, etc; but they do seem a little generic to me.
If you want to get your ears checked out an otolaryngologist (ENT) are specialist doctors who can undertake inner ear examinations and diagnose ear conditions.
If you want more information on Harold Levinson book then click here. Personally I would be very sceptical of his claims but I thought you should be aware of his work. His life story can be found here.
If you want more information on ear disorders then please visit http://vestibular.org/understanding-vestibular-disorder and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labyrinthitis (scroll down to Labyrinthitis and anxiety) for ear disorders.
Above are some of the main medical conditions which can cause anxiety and/or Panic attacks. If you have experienced any of these conditions or know of any others, then please leave your comments in the box below.
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