Surviving the Fear: Overcoming Panic Disorder
David Prescott, Ph.D. – Acadia Hospital
June 9, 2009
People who experience a panic attack for the first time often think they are going to die. It is not uncommon for someone having a panic attack to call their doctor or go to an emergency room, worried that they are having a heart attack. Research findings show that 2% of the adult population in the United States, or a little over 2 million people, have panic disorder in any given year. Around 6% of the population experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime. If untreated, panic disorder leads people to significantly restructure their lives, avoiding friends, places, or events that were once enjoyable.
Symptoms of Panic Disorder: Panic disorder is diagnosed when a person has repeated panic attacks and when they begin to withdraw from situations where they are afraid of having a panic attack. Symptoms of a panic attack include:
· Sudden onset of intense fear and anxiety.
· Feeling like you are going to die or have a heart attack.
· Racing, pounding, or skipping heartbeat
· Difficulty catching your breath
· Choking sensation or lump in your throat
· Excessive sweating
· Shaking or trembling
· Feelings of unreality, or being detached from your body
Why do Panic Attacks Occur? Most experts agree that panic attacks occur when the body’s fear response (sometimes called “fight or flight”) is set into motion. Once this response is triggered it mobilizes your protective resources as if you were going to have to fight for your life. Many different types of events can trigger a panic attack, such as riding in a car, hearing an argument, or apprehension about meeting a new person.
Genetics and Anxiety: More recent research suggests that some people may be more genetically susceptible to high levels of anxiety than others. While the development of panic disorder is complex, some people appear to have stronger biochemical responses to anxiety provoking situations than others. In fact, difference in temperament that may influence development of anxiety disorders can be identified in babies as early as 4 months.
What can I do if I have a Panic Attack? Even though panic attacks are intense and terrifying, they do subside and eventually go away. The first time a person has a panic attack they may not know quite what is happening. If you have had a panic attack before and think another one is developing, remind yourself that the overwhelming feelings and fear will subside. If you are with someone who appears to be having a panic attack, try not to become upset or angry. Telling somebody that the fear is “all in their head” is not usually helpful.
Some things that may help during a panic attack include:
· Tell yourself that this is a panic attack and that you will live through it.
· Try to slow down your breathing, perhaps counting slowly to ten between breaths, doing this over and over.
· Try to focus on something around you, rather than inside you.
· If you are with someone you trust, focus on their voice or presence.
Treatment for Panic Disorder: Both counseling and medication are effective treatment for panic disorder. Counseling usually focuses on
· Identifying events, thoughts, or situations which trigger panic attacks.
· Changing certain patterns of “self-talk” which increase anxiety.
· Learning a physical relaxation response
For certain people, medications may help reduce or eliminate panic disorder. Types of medications that may be prescribed include anti-anxiety medications, or a class of antidepressant medications called SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors).
About 70-90% of people who receive treatment for panic disorder improve relatively quickly. If you think you may have panic disorder, talk to a mental health professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist, or you can ask your family doctor.