Panic disorders are characterized as unexpected and frequent panic attacks (episodes of overwhelming fear) that can persist for a couple of minutes or more. If you suffer from a panic disorder you may experience reoccurring panic attacks that prevents you from performing your daily routines such as: going to work, picking up your children at school and/or preparing meals.
You may hide your condition for fear of being stigmatized or shunned by those around you. Panic disorders can affect all areas of your life, from your relationships and self-esteem to your work performance. This condition typically arises during adolescences, but can occur later in life, for instance, during middle adulthood. Research suggests that panic disorders occur more frequently in women than men.
Signs and Symptoms
In some cases, your panic attacks may decrease or stop all together, without any other complications. You should not worry if you only have one or two panic attacks, however if you experience reoccurring panic attacks combined with behavioral changes and extreme anxiety, then you should seek counsel from a qualified mental health professional.
You may be suffering from panic disorder if:
You suffer from chronic, recurrent panic attacks that are not associated with a specific event or circumstance.
You are worry excessively about having another panic attack
Your behavior has changed because of your frequent panic attacks. For instance, you may avoid driving because you typically have your panic attacks when you drive or you avoid social events because you tend to experience panic attacks at parties and/or social events.
It is important to note that while panic attacks may only last a few minutes, the emotional effects can persist throughout your life. For instance, a panic attack can trigger an intense fear of a certain situation. In addition, an untreated panic disorder can negatively affect your self-esteem and self-confidence, which can prevent you from having a normal life.
Panic disorder symptoms may include the following
Defensive anxiety – If you suffer from defensive anxiety, you feel apprehensive and/or fearful because you are always afraid that you will have another panic attack. This type of anxiety can negatively affect your quality of life.
Phobia-Related Avoidance – If you suffer from phobia-related avoidance, you avoid certain environments because you are afraid that they will trigger reoccurring panic attacks. Moreover, you avoid certain situations, because you are afraid that you will not be able to get away if you need to, therefore triggering a panic attack
The exact causes of panic disorder are unknown at this time, but genetics appear to play a significant role in its development and progression. Other significant life changes and stressors such as: having a baby, getting married, getting divorced, experiencing a death in the family, starting a new job and/or graduating from school can also trigger repeated panic attacks and/or panic disorder. Furthermore, chronic medical conditions have also been known to trigger panic attacks and/or panic disorder
The good news is that panic disorder is a treatable condition. Research suggests that a combination of psychotherapy and medication can help reduce or eliminate panic attacks, lower your risk of panic disorder and improve your quality of life
Psychotherapies that are beneficial for panic attacks and/or panic disorder include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is considered the most effective treatment for chronic panic attacks and panic disorders. This approach helps you understand how your thought processes and behaviors trigger your panic attacks. A cognitive behavioral therapist helps reduce your panic attacks by teaching you how to change how you perceive certain situations. In other words, your therapist teaches you how to identify your triggers and reframe the situation in a positive light so that you no longer feel apprehensive when coming in contact with challenging and/or stressful situations.
Exposure therapy has also shown success when treating chronic panic attacks and panic disorder. During exposure therapy, you are repeatedly exposed to your panic-related triggers (in a safe and secure setting) with the hope that you will eventually become desensitized to them. The purpose of this approach is to teach you healthier ways to cope with difficult and challenging situations. Eventually, with repeated exposure to your triggers, you will become less sensitive to the situations and/or environments that evoke extreme fear in you. The main goal is to help you regain control of your emotions and, therefore reduce and/or eliminate your panic attacks.
Medications are often used in conjunction with psychotherapy. A variety of anti-anxiety medications, such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines, can help manage, reduce and/or eliminate symptoms associated with panic disorders. It is important to note that medications alone cannot cure panic attacks and/or panic disorders, but they are beneficial in extreme cases of panic disorder.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2012). Panic disorder: When fear overwhelms. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic- disorder-when-fear-overwhelms/introduction.shtml.