What is Panic Disorder?
Fear and anxiety are normal emotions. In fact, both can be quite useful as they can signal potential dangers that threaten our physical or mental integrity.
But there are times when fear or anxiety can be so intense that we eventually end up dealing with a panic attack.
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety which produces severe physical reactions, even though there is no real danger or apparent cause.
As those who’ve experienced them can confirm, panic attacks generate a lot of worry and distress. When panic ‘hits,’ you may think you’re losing your mind or that you may have a severe medical condition. People who experience panic attacks can sometimes feel like they are about to die.
While most people will experience a panic attack at some point in their lives, some people experience them regularly. And that’s when mental health professionals consider the possibility of a more severe condition – panic disorder.
In essence, panic disorder is a form of anxiety disorder in which the patient displays recurring episodes of intense fear and anxiety, which trigger sudden and unexpected panic attacks.
Signs of Panic Disorder
To understand how panic disorder works, we need to look at the main symptoms of a panic attack.
- Vertigo (dizziness)
- Abdominal cramps
- Chest pain
- Tingling sensations in the limbs
- Breathing difficulties
- Tachycardia (rapid heart rate)
- Sensation of imminent danger
- Fear of death
- Fear of losing control
- A sense of detachment from reality
- Chills or hot flushes
How is Panic Disorder Treated?
Psychological and pharmacological treatments can help reduce the intensity and frequency of panic attacks.
Depending on the severity of the condition and medical history, mental health professionals can recommend one or both treatment options.
Many healthcare experts consider psychotherapy the first-line treatment for panic disorder and a related condition called agoraphobia. A licensed therapist or counselor can help you understand how panic attacks work, isolate the primary cause and suggest strategies to deal with them effectively.
But the results of therapy take time and effort on your part. If you’re motivated enough to follow through with your counselor’s intervention plan, you can expect a significant reduction in symptoms after just a couple of weeks of therapy.
Medication can help reduce the symptoms and frequency of panic attacks. Certain types of drugs which have been known to alleviate depression and social anxiety have also proven effective in treating panic disorder and agoraphobia.
Although ‘lifestyle changes’ doesn’t fall under the category of ‘official’ treatments for panic disorder, experts believe we can manage panic disorder and agoraphobia by following a simple set of strategies:
- Stick to the treatment recommended by your doctor
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco, energy drinks, caffeine, and recreational drugs
- Join a support group for panic disorder or agoraphobia
- Practice stress management and relaxation techniques
WHEN TO SEE A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL
Mental health issues are real, common, and treatable. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 20% of those are considered serious. 17% of 6-17 year olds experience a mental health disorder. So the first thing to remember is this: You are not alone.
If you feel that you are suffering from a mental illness, and particularly if those issues are preventing you from living life to the full or feeling yourself, you may want to consider professional help which can make an enormous difference.
And to be clear, you don't need to be going through a crisis in order to justify getting help. In fact, it can be advantageous from a treatment perspective to identify and deal with issues early and before they have a major impact on your life. Either way you should feel encouraged and able to seek help however you are feeling.
Mental health professionals such as licensed therapist can help in a range of ways including:
- Help you identify where, when, and how issues arise
- Develop coping strategies for specific symptoms and issues
- Encourage resilience and self-management
- Identify and change negative behaviors
- Identify and encourage positive behaviors
- Heal pain from past trauma
- Figure out goals and waypoints
- Build self-confidence
Treatment for mental health issues, and psychotherapy (sometimes known as 'talk therapy') in particular, frequently helps people to feel better, manage, and even get rid of their symptoms. For example, did you know that over 80% of people treated for depression materially improve? Or that treatment for panic disorder has a 90% success rate?
Other treatment options include medication which, in some cases, can be highly effective when administered in combination with psychotherapy.
So what is psychotherapy? It involves talking about your problems and concerns with a mental health professional. It can take lots of forms, including individual, group, couples and family sessions. Often, people see their therapists once a week for 50 minutes to start with and then reducing frequency as time goes on and issues subside. Treatment can be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few years depending on your particular situation and response.
Never think that getting help is a sign of weakness. It isn't. In fact, it can be a sign of strength and maturity to take the steps necessary to becoming you again and getting your life back on track.
WHEN TO GET EMERGENCY HELP
Are you in distress? If so, or if you think that you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:
- Call your mental health specialist.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Seek help from your primary doctor or other health care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
If a loved one or friend is in danger of attempting suicide or has made an attempt:
- Make sure someone stays with that person.
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
- Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.