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Panic Disorder

By Jane Rekas, LCSW

Approximately 2.4 million Americans suffer from Panic Disorder, according to National Institute of Mental Health. The first time many people have a panic attack, they may mistakenly believe that they are having a heart attack or worry they are going crazy. This is especially true because panic attacks often come without warning or apparent emotional cause, and with so many intense physical symptoms, we’re more likely to assume a physical health cause.

While medical conditions should always be ruled out for all mental health conditions, once they are, you’re still left with experiencing very uncomfortable symptoms. You will want to be screened for hyperthyroidism or hypoglycemia, for example. Stimulant use, even excessive caffeine, can be a contributor to anxiety symptoms. Panic-like symptoms are also associated with the minor cardiac problem, mitral valve prolapse.

Some people only have one or two panic attacks, but if they become chronic, this is called Panic Disorder. Panic Disorder also involves intensified baseline anxiety about worrying that more panic attacks will occur. Often the fear is of these intense symptoms, which are so scary they feel like they threaten survival. It is very important to work on tolerating the symptoms and understanding that the body is giving a signal of threat, which is being misperceived or exaggerated. Also, most panic attacks last an average of 20 minutes and it’s important to reassure yourself, they will pass!

Panic Disorder is not life threatening, but it is definitely debilitating. One of the main thinking errors related to panic is that it is so life threatening that attacks must be avoided at all costs. Ironically, progress may come from allowing panic to occur, tolerating it while it does, and allowing it to pass without as much desperate resistance.

Like all anxiety disorders, panic disorder can be progressive. Panic Disorder can also lead to agoraphobia, which is the avoidance of situations and settings that are associated with previous attacks and fear of subsequent ones. This may mean staying close to home, only going out with another person, avoidance of strenuous physical activity, avoidance of closed in spaces or buildings or social settings. On the bright side, however, Panic Disorder is treatable.

Cognitive Behavioral therapists treat Panic Disorder by helping clients in examining and reducing anticipatory anxiety and phobic avoidance. Together thinking patterns, which may be contributing to and maintaining panic episodes, are unraveled and reframed.

Treatment may also involve exposure therapy and desensitization. This can greatly reduce the uncomfortable physical sensations and symptoms associated with Panic Disorder. This leads to greater tolerance of stress and the ability to participate more fully in life again.

The medications used for panic disorder include antidepressants, benzodiazepines and beta-blockers. Educating yourself about panic disorder can reduce your anxiety about the severity of the problem, helping overall. It is also helpful to avoid caffeine, nicotine and non-drowsy cold medications, as these can trigger panic. You will also alleviate your overall anxiety by practicing relaxation and breathing techniques, as well as calming exercises such as yoga.

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