Is it possible that panic attacks could be contagious? I just think my friend (who never had panic attacks since Ive known her for 22 years). Has started having them after her husband started getting them sbout 3 years ago. Is there anyway I can help her to not get them?
Hi! I'll be glad to help you with this issue.
First let me say that this is a really wonderful question you are asking. As a practicing mental health professional, I'm rarely asked such an interesting question. You are clearly a very good friend and she's fortunate to have you there and concerned for her.
Let me first say that the answer is technically no, but in what I think you mean, the answer is really yes. Here's what I'm referring to:
Panic and anxiety attacks are not contagious in the sense that colds are; one doesn't catch them by shaking someone's hand who has just wiped his nose. Or more seriously, the same type of contagion as HIV. With AIDS the virus passes from one person to another intravenously through a shared needle, for example. So, no, panic and anxiety attacks are not contagious in the medical definition.
However, they are a learned behavior. Thus, they can be acquired by having the behavior modeled. For example, children acquire behavior patterns from their caregivers; teens will often "mimic" behavior they see in music videos. But more seriously, anxiety is often a learned behavior. Because, you see, we all have anxiety within us. And we all have ways of dealing with that anxiety. After prolonged exposure to her husband, her anxiety, which may not have been a pronounced trait for her could indeed become more prominent simply by becoming more attuned to his way of dealing with life stress and anxiety. She then could also without being consciously aware of it adopt his behavior patterns to deal with it. And panic/anxiety attacks are indeed ways the body and mind use to cope with an excess of stress and anxiety.
There are behavioral techniques that she can indeed use to help her break this cycle of learned behavior. Let me address the rest of the answer to her, then, and you can print it out for her to use:
Let's work on five ways you can begin to build a behavioral program for yourself to relieve the panic and anxiety attacks: diet, exercise, spiritual life, motivational reading and psychotherapy. The first four are to help you feel more involved and in control of yourself and what's going on inside. The psychotherapy can actually teach you skills and give you tools for managing your symptoms if you feel it will be helpful; and don't be embarrassed to do so; I work with people every week on these issues. I will also at the end of the posting give you a technique you can use on your own as well for when you are in the throes of anxiety attacks.
Diet: cut out coffee, sugar, white flour. That may be tough. But you will see results as some of the newer research shows. And lean meats only. No fast food restaurants, no fatty foods. See what I mean about getting involved in controlling what's happening? With diet changes you are treating your problem with respect: you are acknowledging you need to make changes to get your body feeling better.
Vitamins can be useful for moods. A good quality daily vitamin, for example. One of the most important supplements is Omega 3 fatty acids, either in fish oil or capsules or in flax seed oil. Buy good quality. The clinical dosage is 1,600-3,000 mg daily. All these things you should get at the biggest and most frequented health food store and ask them for the best brands they trust in terms of quality.
Exercise: 5 days a week moderate exercise, to include 3 days of strength training as you get more used to it. Your doctor will verify the research results showing the benefit.
Spiritual life: the medical literature is now rather overwhelming about the benefits to so many different areas of physical health of regular religious and spiritual practice. Going to church, meditation, etc. are all shown to produce benefits to the physical body. What about our mental health? Well, you will see that meditation is now a regular part of psychotherapy interventions. I don't know if you're a religious person or not. But if not, this may be a good time in your life to tune up your spiritual life. If you do not believe in G-d, that's not a barrier to your own spiritual life. Just thinking about the meaning of your life, of life in general, and studying spiritual texts and practices will help with the anxiety.
Then along with exploring the spiritual part of life, I want you to get really into motivational videos and books. Here's a simple YouTube search I put together for you on "motivational speakers": http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=motivational+speakers&aq=f
Some like Tony Robbins are the classic big guys. Some are newer. There are wonderful women speakers as well. Watch them all. Get inspired. Buy a book or two. Here are some possibilities, but they are only suggestions as there are so many good ones.
Which brings us to psychotherapy. You would find a psychologist or psychotherapist to help you manage the anxiety. Fortunately, anxiety is among the most researched disorders in terms of effective treatments. And the therapies today are very effective. The preferred form of treatment today is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to learn skills.
If your doctor isn't able to refer to anyone, here is the web address for Psychology Today's therapist directory. You can sort by zip codes and when you see someone who seems like they might be helpful (they show you a photo of the therapist!) look at the listing and see if they list CBT therapy in their orientations and anxiety disorders as one of the areas they work with. http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/
If you want someone who isn't as structured as a pure CBT therapist, consider seeing if the therapist also lists humanistic and/or psychodynamic therapy in their orientation. The idea here isn't that these types of therapy are magic. It's that you may want to find a therapist who will form a strong therapeutic alliance with you and will help you look at the sources of your emotions and panic attacks.
Okay, that should help you get working on these symptoms and get some relief. I wish you the very best!
Now, I want to give you a tool to use for when the worry and panic is overwhelming. Here are instructions on a therapeutic protocol called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). It's really quite easy to do almost anywhere. My patients suffering from anxiety, when I teach them PMR at first are amazed how simple it is and that it is a psychological protocol. It was first used in the 1920s! Since then, of course, it has been refined and many studies have been done showing its effectiveness. You will practice PMR at first when you don't wake up with an attack so that you will be familiar with it. I want you to practice the PMR at least 5-6 times before an attack or feeling acute anxiety. Why? Because when you're in the throes of anxiety, you will only remember to do something you are very familiar with it. So practicing 5-6 times is really a minimum.
I want to stress the importance of breathing as well. Part of the physiology of what is happening to you in anxiety states is that your breathing is getting shallower. This reduces the oxygen in your blood to your brain. That increases the anxiety reaction, which strengthens the attack and you are in a vicious cycle! Not good. So breathing is the primary tool. I have found in my practice that learning breathing techniques can be helpful. But some of my patients are not interested in learning more than one thing at the beginning, so I have found that just reminding you to BREATHE deeply at the same time you are doing PMR is almost as good. If you are willing to take a yoga class and learn breathing techniques, that's the best. But, breathing deeply with your PMR will help. So, we're ready for learning PMR. I want you to print my instructions below my signature and have a copy in each of the rooms of your home where you may be when you have an attack. And again, you need to practice this easy technique at least 5-6 times as soon as you can. It needs to become as natural to you as breathing. Ah, remember breathing?
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Quickly focusing on each group one after the other, with practice you can relax your body like ‘liquid relaxation’ poured on your head and it flowed down and completely covered you. You can use progressive muscle relaxation to quickly de-stress any time.
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