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Panic Disorder

On this page: What is a panic attack? | What is Agoraphobia? | What is the impact of Panic Disorder? | How do you treat Panic Disorder?

A person suffers from Panic Disorder if they either have frequent or distressing attacks of panic that begin to interfere with their day to day functioning, or if they spend a considerable amount of time fearfully anticipating the next attack of panic.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is the sudden onset of fear, anxiety or unease in a situation in which most people would not be afraid. During these attacks the person can experience a number of symptoms associated with anxiety, including shortness of breath or trouble catching breath, pounding heart, dizziness, tingling in feet or fingers, tightness or pain in chest, choking or smothering feeling, feeling faint, sweating, trembling, hot or cold flushes, nausea or butterflies in stomach, muscle tension and the urge to flee.

Panic attacks are thought to occur because the Fight/Flight System is too sensitive. The Fight/Flight System is designed to protect us from overt physical danger. When attacked in the street, for example, this is the system that enables you to either defend yourself or run away from the danger. When the Fight/Flight System is activated and there is no overt physical danger it is like a car alarm that goes off when there is no one breaking into the car – it is a false alarm.

A person can have a Panic Attack with little impact on their functioning. However some people have one or more Panic Attacks that lead them to dramatically change their behaviour for fear of experiencing another Panic Attack. Sometimes this leads to Agoraphobia as the person limits their life to such an extent that they do not leave their house or their place of safety for fear of having a Panic Attack. When the Panic Attack impacts on their life to such an extent the problem is described as Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia.

What is Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is anxiety about being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult or embarrassing or in which help may not be available in the event of having a Panic Attack. Situations feared include being outside the home alone, being in a crowd or standing in a line, being on a bridge or in a tunnel and travelling on public transport. These situations are avoided or endured with distress or anxiety about having a Panic Attack.

What is the impact of Panic Disorder?

Panic Disorder has an enormous impact on the person. A person with Panic Disorder will experience high levels of fear, worry and anxiety. They are fearful of going out, especially revisiting places that they have felt anxious or panicky previously. These places are avoided because it seems like the only way to deal with the problem. Therefore life becomes limited – what you can and can’t do is dictated by your anxiety level.

Panic Disorder seems overwhelming to deal with. Demoralisation is a common consequence. Many individuals become discouraged, ashamed and unhappy about the difficulties of carrying out their normal routine. It’s not surprising that between 50 and 65 percent of people with Panic Disorder develop Depression. Depression compounds the problems associated with Panic Disorder as the person loses energy and motivation. At times people will resort to tranquillisers, alcohol or illegal drugs such as marijuana to cope. This can lead to other problems as well.

How do you treat Panic Disorder?

The research suggests that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT is most useful to overcome Panic Disorder. CBT has been around for approximately 50 years. Very simply, this type of therapy focuses on how a person’s thinking (cognitions) influences their feelings and behaviour. For example, if you worry and worry about the likelihood that you will have a panic attack in a particular place such as a supermarket you’re probably going to feel fearful about going along to the supermarket and may in fact decide that not to go. There are three important elements to working to overcome Panic Disorder:

  • Learning to control the physical sensations of anxiety and panic.
  • Examining and challenging unhelpful self talk.
  • Gradually facing the situations which you have avoided because of fear that you might experience a panic attack.

Individual work with a psychologist is helpful to learn to manage Panic Disorder. Group work can also be helpful. An obvious advantage of group work is the opportunity to meet and talk with other people who have similar difficulties. Phone the Centre for more information.

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