People with panic disorder suffer sudden and repeated attacks of acute anxiety that last several minutes or longer. These are called panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger.
As well as these catastrophized thoughts, you may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack. It may feel like having a heart attack. Following the panic attack, you will likely feel weak and exhausted.
Panic attacks can occur at any time. Many people with panic disorder suffer anxiety and dread about the possibility of having another attack.
Panic disorder often begins in the late teens or early adulthood. More women than men have panic disorder (this is true of anxiety disorders in general). However, not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder.
To be diagnosed with panic disorder, someone must:
(1) Experience recurring, unexpected panic attacks.
(2) Experience persistent worry about having another attack or about the meaning of the attack, and/or make significant changes in behaviour as a result of the attacks.
During a panic attack, people may experience:
Besides these physical symptoms, it’s common for people to experience very distressing thoughts. You may fear you are having a heart attack or stroke; that you are going insane; or that you may faint or embarrass yourself in public. There is often a feeling of being out of control or impending doom during a panic attack.
These deeply unpleasant symptoms mean people with panic disorder experience intense worry about when the next panic attack will happen. Often, there is a fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past. In approximately one third of cases, people with panic disorder go on to develop agoraphobia. This results in a radically restricted life.
If not treated effectively, the frequency of panic attacks can escalate, occurring several times a week, or even daily. The dread associated with panic attacks means people are prone to live restricted lives. As already noted, agoraphobia develops in roughly one third of cases.
Thankfully, panic disorder is extremely treatable, with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) being the first-line treatment for the condition.
Sessions will be psycho-educational; a full understanding of panic disorder is central to the recovery process. Catastrophised thinking patterns regarding the potential consequences of panic attacks will be explored and challenged. Together, we will carefully analyse the specific situations that you find challenging, paying close attention to your thoughts, feelings and behaviours in these situations.
CBT teaches you different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to the feelings that come on with a panic attack. The attacks can begin to disappear once you learn to react differently to the physical sensations of anxiety and fear that occur during panic attacks.