"It started 10 years ago, when I had just graduated from college and started a new job. I was sitting in a business seminar in a hotel and this thing came out of the blue. I felt like I was dying.
"For me, a panic attack is almost a violent experience. I feel disconnected from reality. I feel like I'm losing control in a very extreme way. My heart pounds really hard, I feel like I can't get my breath, and there's an overwhelming feeling that things are crashing in on me.
"In between attacks there is this dread and anxiety that it's going to happen again. I'm afraid to go back to places where I've had an attack. Unless I get help, there soon won't be anyplace where I can go and feel safe from panic."
People with panic disorder have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. They can't predict when an attack will occur, and many develop intense anxiety between episodes, worrying when and where the next one will strike.
If you are having a panic attack, most likely your heart will pound and you may feel sweaty, weak, faint, or dizzy. Your hands may tingle or feel numb, and you might feel flushed or chilled. You may have nausea, chest pain or smothering sensations, a sense of unreality, or fear of impending doom or loss of control. You may genuinely believe you're having a heart attack or losing your mind, or on the verge of death.
Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep. An attack generally peaks within 10 minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer.
Panic disorder affects about 2.4 million adult Americans1 and is twice as common in women as in men.2 It most often begins during late adolescence or early adulthood.2 Risk of developing panic disorder appears to be inherited.3 Not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder?for example, many people have one attack but never have another. For those who do have panic disorder, though, it's important to seek treatment. Untreated, the disorder can become very disabling.
Many people with panic disorder visit the hospital emergency room repeatedly or see a number of doctors before they obtain a correct diagnosis. Some people with panic disorder may go for years without learning that they have a real, treatable illness.
Panic disorder is often accompanied by other serious conditions such as depression, drug abuse, or alcoholism4,5 and may lead to a pattern of avoidance of places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. For example, if a panic attack strikes while you're riding in an elevator, you may develop a fear of elevators. If you start avoiding them, that could affect your choice of a job or apartment and greatly restrict other parts of your life.
Some people's lives become so restricted that they avoid normal, everyday activities such as grocery shopping or driving. In some cases they become housebound. Or, they may be able to confront a feared situation only if accompanied by a spouse or other trusted person.
Basically, these people avoid any situation in which they would feel helpless if a panic attack were to occur. When people's lives become so restricted, as happens in about one-third of people with panic disorder,2 the condition is called agoraphobia. Early treatment of panic disorder can often prevent agoraphobia.
Panic disorder is one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders, responding in most cases to medications or carefully targeted psychotherapy.
You may genuinely believe you're having a heart attack, losing your mind, or are on the verge of death. Attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep.
Psychotherapy for Panic Disorder
Psychotherapy involves talking with a trained mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or counselor to learn how to deal with problems like anxiety disorders.
Cognitive-Behavioral and Behavioral Therapy
Research has shown that a form of psychotherapy that is effective for several anxiety disorders, particularly panic disorder and social phobia, is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It has two components. The cognitive component helps people change thinking patterns that keep them from overcoming their fears. For example, a person with panic disorder might be helped to see that his or her panic attacks are not really heart attacks as previously feared; the tendency to put the worst possible interpretation on physical symptoms can be overcome. Similarly, a person with social phobia might be helped to overcome the belief that others are continually watching and harshly judging him or her.
The behavioral component of CBT seeks to change people's reactions to anxiety-provoking situations. A key element of this component is exposure, in which people confront the things they fear. An example would be a treatment approach called exposure and response prevention for people with OCD. If the person has a fear of dirt and germs, the therapist may encourage them to dirty their hands, then go a certain period of time without washing. The therapist helps the patient to cope with the resultant anxiety. Eventually, after this exercise has been repeated a number of times, anxiety will diminish. In another sort of exposure exercise, a person with social phobia may be encouraged to spend time in feared social situations without giving in to the temptation to flee. In some cases the individual with social phobia will be asked to deliberately make what appear to be slight social blunders and observe other people's reactions; if they are not as harsh as expected, the person's social anxiety may begin to fade. For a person with PTSD, exposure might consist of recalling the traumatic event in detail, as if in slow motion, and in effect re-experiencing it in a safe situation. If this is done carefully, with support from the therapist, it may be possible to defuse the anxiety associated with the memories. Another behavioral technique is to teach the patient deep breathing as an aid to relaxation and anxiety management.
Behavioral therapy alone, without a strong cognitive component, has long been used effectively to treat specific phobias. Here also, therapy involves exposure. The person is gradually exposed to the object or situation that is feared. At first, the exposure may be only through pictures or audiotapes. Later, if possible, the person actually confronts the feared object or situation. Often the therapist will accompany him or her to provide support and guidance.
If you undergo CBT or behavioral therapy, exposure will be carried out only when you are ready; it will be done gradually and only with your permission. You will work with the therapist to determine how much you can handle and at what pace you can proceed.
A major aim of CBT and behavioral therapy is to reduce anxiety by eliminating beliefs or behaviors that help to maintain the anxiety disorder. For example, avoidance of a feared object or situation prevents a person from learning that it is harmless. Similarly, performance of compulsive rituals in OCD gives some relief from anxiety and prevents the person from testing rational thoughts about danger, contamination, etc.
To be effective, CBT or behavioral therapy must be directed at the person's specific anxieties. An approach that is effective for a person with a specific phobia about dogs is not going to help a person with OCD who has intrusive thoughts of harming loved ones. Even for a single disorder, such as OCD, it is necessary to tailor the therapy to the person's particular concerns. CBT and behavioral therapy have no adverse side effects other than the temporary discomfort of increased anxiety, but the therapist must be well trained in the techniques of the treatment in order for it to work as desired. During treatment, the therapist probably will assign "homework"?specific problems that the patient will need to work on between sessions.
CBT or behavioral therapy generally lasts about 12 weeks. It may be conducted in a group, provided the people in the group have sufficiently similar problems. Group therapy is particularly effective for people with social phobia. There is some evidence that, after treatment is terminated, the beneficial effects of CBT last longer than those of medications for people with panic disorder; the same may be true for OCD, PTSD, and social phobia.Medication may be combined with psychotherapy, and for many people this is the best treatment approach, although often CBT alone is quite effective.