Anxiety and panic disorders are common in this country. The following insights into panic disorders are for informational purposes only. If severe anxiety and panic is negatively impacting your quality of life and you suspect you may have a panic disorder, consult a licensed mental health professional.
Understanding Panic Disorder: Signs and Symptoms
When a person has a panic disorder, they experience sudden attacks of fear, sometimes lasting for several minutes. Panic attacks are not unusual. A panic attack can happen when someone is involved in a traumatic event or hears disturbing news. According to studies, in a single year, about 11% of the population experiences a panic attack, but most do not develop panic disorder. People with panic disorders encounter frightening symptoms without a trigger or warning. They may experience heart pounding, difficulty breathing, dizziness, chills, chest pain, and sweating.
Like other anxiety disorders, panic disorder can affect a person’s well-being. Chest pains and a pounding heart can feel like a heart attack. Not knowing when the next episode might occur may cause an individual to experience panic attacks more often. Having a panic attack during a family gathering or other event may cause a person to avoid similar occasions in the future, leading to isolation and strained relationships.
Panic attacks can be expected or spontaneous. A person with a phobia may expect a panic attack when they encounter a situation or object that causes fear. An individual who fears cats may panic at seeing a cat strolling through the neighborhood. However, spontaneous or unexpected panic attacks occur without a triggering event.
Differentiating Panic Attacks from General Anxiety
Both generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder can get in the way of carrying out daily activities. Individuals may experience the feelings brought about by these conditions without knowing what’s happening, which is why a proper diagnosis is essential. Anxiety and panic may sound like similar responses to situations or events, but they are not the same:
- Panic attacks happen for no apparent reason.
- Panic attack symptoms can come quickly, be intense, and frightening.
- Anxiety attacks tend to be a response to gradual stress.
- Anxiety attack symptoms tend to be less severe but last longer than panic attack symptoms.
It is normal to experience some anxiety, and in certain situations, anxiety may lead to positive action. For example, when you have a job interview, you might be concerned about your responses to questions, which can help you prepare for the meeting. Worrying about your teenager driving solo may prompt you to give them safe driving tips. Normal test anxiety may lead to better study habits.
People with anxiety disorder worry excessively and become distressed over routine situations. An individual with an anxiety disorder may be constantly on edge, restless, and consumed with thoughts of something terrible happening. Anxiety disorder not only affects the person experiencing it but can make it hard to maintain healthy relationships. Promising a friend that you will drive them to the airport and then canceling at the last minute due to fear of being in an accident is an example of how anxiety can interfere with activities and relationships.
Self-Assessment and Seeking Professional Guidance
According to experts, many people have one or two panic attacks during their lifetime; however, if you experience frequent panic attacks, you should seek help. There are some factors to consider in deciding if you should see a mental health professional. Mental health experts recommended that if you have at least four panic attacks and you constantly worry about having more, you have panic disorder.
Prepare for your visit to the health care provider by writing down your questions about panic disorder and treatment options, including what to expect from treatment. Take someone with you who can help you remember what the provider said.
Medical conditions can mimic panic disorder, and panic disorder symptoms can mimic physical illnesses. A person with a respiratory illness may experience a panic attack when they can’t breathe normally. A person with heart disease may feel panicky when they experience sudden chest pain and think they may be having a heart attack. A physical examination and lab tests may reveal whether symptoms from an illness may cause a panic attack or if the panic attack causes the physical symptoms.
Coping Strategies for Panic Disorder
With planning and practice, you can develop coping strategies to get you through a panic attack. Some actions you can take to lessen the effect of panic attacks include:
- Using positive self-talk
- Practicing deep breathing
- Practicing mindfulness
- Moving to a quiet space
- Use positive self-talk. Statements such as: “I’ve been through this before, and it won’t hurt me.” “I will calm down and let my body get me through this.” “I will get through this and be fine. These mantras can be reassuring and put you in control of the situation.
- Plan for how you will handle a panic attack. If you have never tried deep breathing exercises, practice them at home in a quiet place. You can do a simple breathing technique by slowly inhaling through your nose, and then exhaling slowly through your mouth. Do this exercise two or three times or until you feel calm. Once you master this technique, you can use it anytime you feel a panic attack coming.
Practicing mindfulness is another coping strategy for panic disorder because it can help you overcome scary and unpleasant thoughts. Mindfulness enables you to focus on the present. As you take a mindful moment by engaging in deep breathing exercises, think about what is happening with your body. Think about how you feel as you inhale and exhale. Be aware of tension in your body. For example, if you notice that you have clenched fists, slowly release your fingers and allow the tension to leave your hands. You also can imagine being in your happy place, which might be sitting on the beach, watching the waves come and go. If a stroll down a path lined with colorful flowers makes you happy, meditate on that experience.
Whenever possible, move to a quiet space because loud talking and other noises can cause panic attacks to be more intense. If it is impossible to leave the room, move to a more tranquil spot, such as a corner or area with fewer people.
Seek a licensed mental health professional to find the best treatment for panic disorder. A mental health expert will evaluate your symptoms, triggers, intensity, frequency, and medical conditions. You and your provider should discuss issues that may contribute to panic disorder, including family and social history, life events, military service, chronic illness, or trauma. Sharing with your provider how panic disorder affects your activities and relationships is vital.
Typically, panic disorder treatment goals focus on eliminating or lessening the frequency and severity of symptoms so they do not interfere with functioning. Treatment options depend on your circumstances and the severity of your panic disorder. Your provider may suggest medication, education, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and other treatments.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy is one of the most common treatments for panic disorder. By taking part in CBT, you can learn to control thoughts and feelings connected with panic attacks. You can also develop coping skills such as breathing techniques to help you relax when you feel a panic attack coming. During CBT, your therapist may expose you to your panic triggers through visualization or other methods. Whether the trigger for a panic attack is an object or a traumatic event, exposure therapy helps you face it in a safe environment. Over time, repeated exposures can help you feel less threatened by the trigger.
Depending on your needs and the severity of your panic disorder, your provider may recommend an outpatient program or an inpatient facility. At FHE, we have a team of compassionate professionals ready to assist you in managing and overcoming panic disorder. Call us today to find out how we can help.