Panic Disorder

Panic attacks are sudden surges of anxiety and fear. People feel their hearts pounding or can’t breathe. Some people even feel like they are going crazy or dying. Many people mistakenly believe they are having a heart attack. Panic attacks can be managed. The sooner one seeks help, the easier it is to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic attacks. A diagnosis of Panic Disorder is made when one experiences repeated panic attacks, has elevated anxiety due to the panic attacks, and engages in unhealthy behaviors related to avoiding the panic attacks.

Panic attacks are random, and in many cases occur unexpectedly. Sometimes they happen when you are asleep and sometimes they have no identifiable cause. Panic attacks can happen spontaneously or can be recurring. Recurring panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation. This situation is usually one in which you feel endangered or unable to escape.

A full-blown panic attack usually includes a combination of physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, shaking, hot/cold flashes, dizziness, numbness and tingling etc. One can feel as if they are choking, can feel detachment from their surroundings, fear death, or fear losing control.  Experiencing a panic attack can leave a lasting negative psychological effect, even though the actual panic attack usually lasts for only a few minutes. Repeated panic attacks can take an emotional toll.  One’s self-confidence is often negatively impacted by the fear and sheer terror that is felt during an attack. Eventually this can lead to Anticipatory Anxiety and Phobic Avoidance. Anticipatory anxiety is a feeling of anxiety between attacks and an inability to relax. It is the result of the fear of having more panic attacks in the future. Phobic avoidance is the avoidance of certain situations or environments due to the fear of having future panic attacks.

There are treatments for panic attacks, usually in some form of therapy or self-help strategies. The treatment of choice is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which empirically proven to be  the most effective treatment for panic attacks or panic disorder. This type of therapy focuses on the thought processes and thinking patterns that lead to panic attacks. Essentially, it allows one to look at their fears in a more realistic light. Another form of treatment is Exposure Therapy. In this type of therapy, one is exposed to the physical sensations of panic in a controlled and safe environment. As a result of this exposure (usually done through replicating the physical symptoms of a panic attack, such as shaking one’s head, hyperventilating, etc.) one will become less afraid of these sensations and will feel a greater sense of control over their panic. One simple way of regaining control is through slow deep breathing, combined with positive self-talk and visualization of a relaxing image.

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Another method of treatment is through anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications. Although they will not cure panic attacks or panic disorder, they allow for a greater degree of control over, or reduce the symptoms of panic attacks. It is important to remember that these medicines do not resolve the panic attacks or cure panic disorder, they only reduce the symptoms.

By: Austen Goddu.

*Source: Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder, HelpingGuide.org