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Study looks at alternative therapy for panic attacks

A woman walking her dog through the park on a clear day is stricken with a racing heartbeat, labored breathing and dizziness. A man relaxing with a good book in his favorite chair starts sweating, trembling and feeling nauseous. Both are gripped with paralyzing fear, for no obvious reason.

These people have experienced a panic attack, the primary manifestation of panic disorder. For more than 2 million Americans, this condition makes daily life an exercise in terror, whether they are suffering from an attack or simply wondering when the next one will hit.

Psychiatrists typically treat panic attacks with anti-anxiety medications and/or cognitive therapy. But researchers at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences are investigating an alternative treatment: respiratory therapy. Sunyoung Kim, PhD, the project director, is looking for volunteers to help study whether controlled breathing techniques can subvert a nascent panic attack.

The study will also address two competing theories as to what causes attacks. One suggests a lowered level of carbon dioxide in the blood due to hyperventilation, while the other suggests just the opposite--too much carbon dioxide. By looking closely at breathing techniques and their effect on carbon dioxide levels, Kim hopes to figure out which scenario is more likely. This information will help Kim develop appropriate breathing strategies that any panic sufferer can use at the onset of an attack, instead of relying on costly medications or therapy sessions.

Individuals selected for the study receive free therapy plus $100 compensation. If interested, contact Eileen Wollburg at wollburg@stanford.edu or 493-5000, extension 65497.