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Study Challenges Link Between Panic Attacks, PTSD

Findings suggest many factors contribute to stress disorder, not just fear during trauma

FRIDAY, April 10 (HealthDay News) -- People who suffer a panic attack during or immediately after a traumatic event aren't at increased risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a new study says.

Factors such as a prior history of depression, a person's emotional support network and self-esteem are stronger indicators of a person's likelihood of developing PTSD, said U.S. researchers.

Their findings challenge the belief that having a panic attack during or after an upsetting event triggers or predicts PTSD in the long term. Symptoms of panic attacks include shortness of breath, sweating, trembling or shaking, heart pounding, chills or hot flashes, and a sense that there is no reality.

The study authors examined panic attacks during a traumatic experience among people exposed to the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Among their key findings:

  • The highest rate of panic attacks occurred in those aged 30 to 44.
  • People with the highest levels of education were least likely to suffer a panic attack.
  • Hispanics were more likely to have panic attacks than people in other ethnic groups.
  • 30 percent of people who suffered panic attacks after 9/11 had depression prior to the event.

Overall, the findings suggest that many factors contribute to PTSD, not just panic attacks during a traumatic event.

"Clinicians should look at other signs of mental-health stress such as not sleeping, recently experiencing stressful life events and withdrawing from social interactions," study co-author Joseph Boscarino, a senior investigator at the Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa., said in a Geisinger news release.

The study was published in the April issue of the journal Psychiatry Research.

About 10 percent of Americans suffer panic attacks each year, but that rate is much higher among people involved in traumatic events, according to federal government data.

"We encourage trauma victims to seek counseling immediately after disasters and other traumatic events. We're learning that the long-term mental-health consequences of trauma are far-reaching and more complex than originally thought," Boscarino said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about PTSD.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Geisinger Health System, news release, April 7, 2009

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