Panic Disorder is a severe mental illness that is characterized by unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are intense bouts of uncontrollable anxiety that are very debilitating for the person experiencing them. In some cases, they may need to be hospitalized upon having a panic attack insofar as it is severe enough.
Panic disorder, like most anxiety disorders are typically more common than other mental illnesses, such as personality disorders for example. The symptoms of panic disorder are not exclusive to this condition only. For example, someone suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or social anxiety disorder may also experience panic attacks.
What makes panic disorder its own illness and not merely a symptom is that they experience panic attacks much more frequently than with other disorders.
Panic disorder is very unique as the key symptom experienced with this condition (panicking) is a very common symptom of other disorders, especially among phobias. There are hundreds of phobias that exist and panic attacks are often very common symptoms associated with these disorders. For example, people with claustrophobia may panic when they are in confined spaces and people with arachnophobia may panic when they see a spider.
Symptoms of Panic Disorder
People suffering from this illness will experience very intense and unexpected bouts of anxiety when triggered by certain events. Once triggered, they will immediately enter into a fight, flight, or freeze state of mind. When in such a state, their heart rate will increase, their respiratory rate will increase, their muscles will tense up, they will begin to sweat, and their senses will become sharper, among many other things. Essentially, their body will be preparing itself for imminent danger, even though there is no real danger in sight.
The intense anxiety that they experience when they are triggered makes their day to day life very difficult as they may be overly cautious when in certain situations as they may fear becoming triggered and having a panic attack. The specifics of this will vary greatly from person to person as people’s fears are often very different from one another.
It may not be uncommon for someone who has panic disorder to also suffer from additional anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or phobias such as agoraphobia (fear of crowded places) or glossophobia (fear of public speaking) due to the fact that they will share the similar symptom of experiencing panic attacks. However, this will depend on several factors, such as genetics and their environment.
Below, you will some more common symptoms of panic disorder:
Intense anxiety that results in panic attacks
Fight, flight, or freeze state of mind
Unable to control their intense anxiety
Muscle tension, shakiness, and sweating
Avoiding places or situations that may trigger their anxiety
Causes of Panic Disorder
There is no known cause of panic disorder. However, genetics and one’s environment may play very significant roles. For instance, if someone has a family history of mental illness, especially of anxiety disorders, then they may have a higher chance of developing panic disorder. This may be due to them also having a higher chance of being genetically predisposed to developing mental illness.
If someone were to have such a genetic predisposition, then it may only require that they experience some sort of traumatic event for them to develop full blown panic disorder. Any event that causes an immense influx of unwanted anxiety can be enough for someone to develop full blown panic disorder insofar as they have the genetics to do so.
Though we do not definitively know what causes panic disorder to develop. There is a consensus among most mental health professionals that both genetics and one’s environment play very significant roles in the development of any given mental illness. Taking a closer look at these two different parameters may shed some light as to whether your not you may be at risk for developing panic disorder.
The DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for panic disorder require unexpected, recurrent panic attacks, followed in at least one instance by at least a month of a significant and related behavior change, a persistent concern of more attacks, or a worry about the attack’s consequences. There are two types, one with and one without agoraphobia. Diagnosis is excluded by attacks due to a drug or medical condition, or by panic attacks that are better accounted for by other mental disorders.
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The ICD-10 diagnostic criteria:
The essential feature of panic disorder is recurrent attacks of severe anxiety (panic), which are not restricted to any particular situation or set of circumstances and are instead unpredictable.
The main symptoms of panic disorder include:
sudden onset of palpitations
feelings of unreality (depersonalization or derealization)
secondary fear of dying, losing control, or going mad
Panic Disorder Treatments (abridged)
Talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be very beneficial for someone suffering from panic disorder. CBT works by having the patient become much more aware of why they think and behave the way they do. Spending time exploring these different things may help the patient better understand how to improve their cognition.
Exposure therapy may also be beneficial for someone suffering from panic disorder, but this will vary depending on many factors, such as if they tend to panic in a specific situation or not. If their panic attacks tend to occur without a concise trigger warning of any kind, then exposure therapy may not be very effective as it would not be clear what to expose the patient to during therapy.
Anti-anxiety medication may also be very effective for someone suffering from panic attacks as it can help to soothe their anxiety at the onset of a panic attack or during one. Medications such as Valium and Xanax may be prescribed for someone suffering from panic disorder to help them when their symptoms become exacerbated. Drugs such as these are typically taken as needed.
If you think you may have panic disorder or if you are suffering from some of the symptoms of this condition, then you should talk to your doctor as soon as you can so that you can be properly diagnosed and treated.
As previously mentioned, exposure therapy is one of the most common ways to treat anxiety disorders such as panic disorder. It can be an efficient way to help desensitize the patient to their specific fears. Be that as it may, it is imperative that the therapist implementing it on their patient is very adept at doing so. For example, if the therapist were to slightly expose someone with panic disorder to their fear, then it may not be very effective as they may need a higher amount of exposure to truly trigger any sort of worthwhile change in the patient.
The same can be said for the antithesis of this scenario. If the therapist were to excessively expose someone with panic disorder to their fear, then doing so could be highly counterproductive to the point to where their condition may become immensely worse due to the therapy alone. So, it is paramount that the therapist implementing exposure therapy for someone with panic disorder has a very strong sense of just how severe their symptoms are so that they can know the level of exposure that the patient will likely be able to handle.
Exercise has been shown to be extremely beneficial for people suffering from anxiety disorders, including panic disorder. Specifically, cardiovascular exercise can significantly help to relieve one’s stress. This is not to say that weight-resistance training would not benefit someone with anxiety, but rather that aerobic exercise is has been shown to be more effective at releasing those feel good chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins.
According to the American Psychology Association, exercise can help to condition the mind to better cope with stressful situations. This makes sense when we take into consideration the high amount of stress that the body is put under during strenuous exercise. So, if you yourself are sedentary, then engaging in some form of aerobic exercise may be able to significantly help reduce your symptoms of panic disorder by making it much easier for you to cope with the anxiety and stress that’s associated with this condition.
There are many different aerobic modalities that you can partake in to help reduce your symptoms of panic disorder, such as swimming, biking, skiing, walking, and jogging. You can also acquire the many benefits of exercise by playing sports such as tennis, soccer, basketball, and racquetball, among many other sports. Engaging in some form of exercise consistently may be able to help relieve some of the pain associated with panic disorder over time.
There are numerous different yoga poses that can substantially benefit someone who is suffering from this disorder. In part, this is due to the meditative state of mind that yoga tends to emit in those who practice it on a consistent basis. Yoga can be thought of as meditation in motion. It can help to relieve some of the anxiety associated with this condition due to the mere fact that by engaging in yoga, your attention will be redirected to something more productive.
There are many different types of yoga that someone with panic disorder can benefit from, such as hatha yoga or hot yoga, among many others. Nevertheless, regardless of the many different forms of yoga that exist, virtually all of them can help to relieve some of the stress and anxiety that is associated with this disorder.
If you have never practiced yoga before, then it may be in your best interest to take a class or watch some guided videos that can help you through each pose. Just like with meditation, the more you practice yoga, the more adept you will become at it. Besides helping you to reduce your symptoms of panic disorder, you can also expect to acquire increased strength and flexibility, among other benefits.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR is an 8-week evidence-based program that offers secular, intensive mindfulness training to help people who are suffering from anxiety, stress, depression, and other sorts of mental anguish. MBSR may be able to significantly help someone who is suffering from panic disorder as mindfulness meditation has been shown to be very beneficial for anxious people. In such a structured program, someone with this condition can expect to learn a plethora of different skills that can help them to relieve the intense anxiety that’s associated with their specific phobia.
Talk to your doctor or therapist to see if MBSR can help you to reduce the intensity of your symptoms of panic disorder, as well as where to find MBSR programs in your area.
These types of medications are very useful to help prevent panic attacks. Such drugs can be extremely useful for people suffering from severe panic disorder due to the fact that people with phobias often experience panic attacks as well. Some common anti-anxiety medications include Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin, among many others.
These types of drugs are not typically taken on a daily basis, but they may be insofar as their panic disorder is severe enough. However, this is something that you should first discuss with your doctor before you decide to do so to ensure that it is safe and effective.
These types of medications aren’t only for people who suffer from depression as they can also help people suffering from anxiety disorders as well, such as panic disorder. Some common antidepressants are Paxil, Zoloft, and Lexapro, among several others. These drugs may be able to help reduce some of the symptoms of this disorder.
These types of drugs are typically taken on a daily basis. They can indeed help prevent panic attacks from occurring, but they are more so used to help reduce people’s daily anxiety. Talk to your doctor to see if taking antidepressants can help to reduce your symptoms of this condition, as well as whether or not it is safe to do so.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve one’s mental health. It is a modality that is often used to treat people suffering from anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder and OCD. Someone with panic disorder may also be able to benefit from CBT as well seeing as how it would allow them to have a much better understanding as to why they think and behave the way they do in relation to their irrational fears.
CBT can be immensely helpful for someone with panic disorder given the sheer automaticity of their symptoms. For example, when someone with panic disorder is exposed to their fear, they will almost always have an instantaneous subconscious reaction to their fear. Such a lack of introspection is likely a large part of why someone with this condition will suffer to the extent that they will. CBT can help you to take a step back and analyze your fears more deeply than you typically would.
Besides learning to be more fastidious with regards to understanding one’s specific fears, someone with panic disorder engaging in CBT can also expect to learn various other skills aimed at helping to relieve the anxiety caused by their condition.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
DBT is a very effective form of treatment for people struggling with emotion regulation. It is often used to treat people suffering from borderline personality disorder. Nevertheless, it can also be very advantageous for someone suffering from anxiety disorders like panic disorder too. This is due to the numerous amount of coping skills you can expect to learn in a DBT group. These groups typically last about 6 months long and can have anywhere from two people to several people depending on how many join the group.
One very effective DBT skill for helping someone with this condition is half-smiling. This technique works by having you think about that which you fear or upsets you all while slightly raising the corners of your mouth by lightly smiling, thus the term “half-smiling.” Although, it isn’t enough to just think about your fear while half-smiling, you also have to try and refrain from entertaining those painful emotions that your specific fear may evoke.
Mindfulness meditation is also heavily used in DBT and can greatly benefit someone with this condition as it is done in a group setting, which helps to put the patient out of their comfort zone. These group mindfulness practices may include drinking warm tea to hone in on the sense of taste and tactile senses or simply focusing on the breath.
Coping ahead is another very useful DBT skill that can help someone with panic disorder. With coping ahead, you will want to find a place where you can sit down quietly without distraction. Close your eyes and then think about the many different possible scenarios where you would face your specific fear and overcome it or cope with it. Doing so will help you to be much better adept at coping with your panic disorder when you are actually exposed to the specific fear associated with it in real life.
There are many different forms of meditation that exists which can be very advantageous for someone suffering from panic disorder. Specifically, mindfulness meditation has been shown to be quite beneficial for helping people to enter into a more equanimeous state. There are many different ways with which you can implement mindfulness meditation and there are also many different meditation apps which are designed to make things as easy as possible for you.
Mindfulness has the potential to significantly help those suffering from this disorder due to how it will help one to distract themselves from their fear by refocusing their attention onto something else that does not have any sort of emotional baggage attached to it, such as by focusing on the breath for example. This is one of the most basic ways that one can meditate and be present.
For someone with this condition in the midst of a panic attack, redirecting one’s attention to the various sensations felt when breathing can actually help to reduce the amount of mental anguish experienced during such an influx of anxiety.
To implement mindfulness meditation to help relieve one’s symptoms of panic disorder, you can do so by paying close attention to the way the muscles in your abdomen and chest contract and relax with every inhale and exhale. You can spend time dwelling on how it feels as your chest expands during each inhale and how it sinks in with every exhale.
Besides focusing on your breathing, you can also focus on the sounds around you, the way your skin feels as you touch certain objects, the way foods taste, as well as the way certain aromas smell. Essentially, honing into your 5 senses can significantly help you to reduce some of the anxiety that is associated with this condition. Also, remember that it will take a lot of practice to become an adept meditator. So, practice is key.
Control Caffeine Consumption
It is no secret that consuming large amounts of caffeine throughout the day can aid in making you more anxious. This makes sense when we look closely at how caffeine affects our body’s physiology. When we consume a high dose of caffeine, our heart will start to beat faster and we become more tense. Essentially, our body will begin to go into a “fight or flight” state of mind. Such a frame of mind is often a precursor for someone with panic disorder to experience panic attacks in the first place.
So, consuming little to no caffeine throughout the day may be able to significantly help reduce your day to day anxiety. Although doing so will likely not make all of your anxiety go away, it will indeed help you to reduce any unnecessary suffering that you would have otherwise experienced if you were to consume a large amount of caffeine.
Beverages like coffee and tea are often high in caffeine, as well as some energy drinks. In fact, even some foods have caffeine in them as well, such as dark chocolate. Being more conscious of your daily caffeine consumption may help you to reduce some of the symptoms associated with this disorder.