Breaking Free of Panic Disorder: Understanding, Coping, and Overcoming

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, panic disorder affects approximately six million adults in America, or about 2.7% of the U.S. population. This is a distinct condition where, unlike generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks occur suddenly and unexpectedly.

With panic disorder, attacks often have no clear triggers, which can make it difficult to diagnose and treat. The good news is that, with the right approach, panic disorder can be controlled.

This article explains the basics of the condition, including potential causes and insights into panic disorder treatment. Keep reading to learn about therapies and coping mechanisms that can help you break free of panic disorder.

What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is characterized by sudden, intense feelings of fear in response to ordinary, nonthreatening situations, known as panic attacks. Common symptoms include profuse sweating, racing heart, or difficulty breathing.

In some instances, people may feel like they are having a heart attack. There is often a looming sense of anticipatory fear of the future or the unknown.

While the attacks themselves are not directly threatening to one’s health, they can lead to a diminishment in quality of life. The inability to predict or identify triggers alone can make panic disorder a harrowing disease.

Keep in mind that, while panic disorder can exist alone, it often accompanies other conditions. These can trigger or exacerbate the onset of panic attacks. Common coexisting conditions include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Trauma- or stressor-related disorders

This is not a comprehensive list. Medical conditions, in addition to mental health conditions, can accompany, and impact, panic disorder as well.

What Causes Panic Disorder?

Panic disorders can be caused by a myriad of factors. A common one is genetics. Research suggests that certain genetic variations may play a role in increasing susceptibility to developing panic disorder.

Similarly, imbalances in neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, which are responsible for mood regulation and stress response, can be an underlying cause. Changes in the amygdala, which controls fear response, can trigger panic disorder.

Other biological and psychological factors can play a part as well. These include hormonal changes, overactive fight-or-flight response, or a history of trauma or loss.

How Is Panic Disorder Distinct From Other Anxiety Disorders?

While there can be similarities between panic and other types of anxiety disorders, there are some distinctions worth mentioning. One is the onset of panic attacks.

As mentioned, with panic disorder, panic attacks are usually abrupt, unexpected and can come on in routine circumstances. They present as a number of physical symptoms that come on, seemingly, out of the blue and with no discernible triggers. With other anxiety disorders, there is often a known trigger, related to external situations or events, that sets off the anxiety.

Panic attacks associated with panic disorder often have physical symptoms such as chest tightness, racing heartbeat, knots in the stomach, hyperventilation, or a feeling of losing control. With panic disorder, symptoms are intense but do not usually last long or persist beyond the attack itself. However, individuals find themselves anticipating when the next attack might present itself.

What Are the Treatments for Panic Disorder?

Fortunately, there are many impactful treatments for panic disorder. In most cases, a combination of approaches can be most effective. Here are the main ones to consider.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a treatment aimed at identifying and changing unhealthy thoughts, emotions, or behaviors. Specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the main type of psychotherapy that has proven effective at treating panic disorder.

With CBT, the individual discusses thoughts and emotions with a licensed counselor. The mental health professional can identify potential panic attack triggers and help change the patient’s thinking and behaviors related to them.

Within the CBT modality, a technique known as exposure therapy is utilized. This involves gradually but repeatedly exposing patients to potential triggers. This can be real life exposures or imaginal exposures.

Over time, the person can learn to become comfortable with situations that trigger panic attacks and have more control over their reactions. Individuals will learn relaxation techniques, such as deep muscle relaxation and controlled breathing.

Lifestyle Changes

Besides regular therapy, there may be other things that sufferers of panic disorder can do to mitigate the impacts. For instance, some basic lifestyle changes may be helpful.

Regular exercise is a prominent one. Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural stress reliever.

Eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep are other examples. Some people may find that avoiding caffeine and alcohol can help stabilize mood and reduce the chances of panic attacks.

Finally, various stress management techniques can help reduce or prevent the incidence of panic attacks. This might include things like yoga or mindfulness exercises. Learning better time management skills also could cut down on stress and anxiety, lessening the prevalence of panic attacks.

Medication

In some situations, medication can be effective at treating panic disorder and panic attacks. Various anti-anxiety medications are often prescribed to treat the condition.

In some cases, anti-anxiety medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can make panic attacks less frequent or severe. Benzodiazepines can also be effective but have a high addiction potential. For this reason, medication-based treatment is often only considered in situations where other types of treatment have failed, or where the condition is quite severe.

Support Groups

A final type of treatment for panic disorder is support groups. Meeting and conversing with others who have shared similar challenges can lead to validation, understanding, and encouragement.

This can be empowering and lessen feelings of isolation. Support groups are also forums for sharing coping strategies and other information about panic disorder treatment.

Find Panic Disorder Treatment Near You

Now that you understand some of the basics of panic disorder treatment, you can implement steps to help you break free of it. With the right combination of therapies, you can control and even eliminate most panic disorder symptoms.

At Advanced Behavioral Health, we provide a range of services to help people think clearer and feel better. These include cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness-based therapy, as well as breathing, relaxation, and biofeedback techniques.

Reach out to us today to schedule a session at our midtown office.

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