Treatment of Panic Disorder
Treatment can bring significant relief to 70 percent to 90 percent of people with panic disorder, and early treatment can help keep the disease from progressing to the later stages where agoraphobia develops.
Before undergoing any treatment for panic disorder, a person should undergo a thorough medical examination to rule out other possible causes of the distressing symptoms. This is necessary because a number of other conditions, such as excessive levels of thyroid hormone, certain types of epilepsy, or cardiac arrhythmias, which are disturbances in the rhythm of the heartbeat, can cause symptoms resembling those of panic disorder.
Several effective treatments have been developed for panic disorder and agoraphobia. In 1991, a conference held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under the sponsorship of the National Institute of Mental Health and the Office of Medical Applications of Research, surveyed the available information on panic disorder and its treatment. The conferees concluded that a form of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy and medications are both effective for panic disorder. A treatment should be selected according to the individual needs and preferences of the patient, the panel said, and any treatment that fails to produce an effect within six to eight weeks should be reassessed.
This is a combination of cognitive therapy, which can modify or eliminate thought patterns contributing to the patient’s symptoms, and behavioral therapy, which aims to help the patient to change his or her behavior.
Typically the patient undergoing cognitive-behavioral therapy meets with a therapist for one to three hours a week. In the cognitive portion of the therapy, the therapist usually conducts a careful search for the thoughts and feelings that accompany the panic attacks. These mental events are discussed in terms of the “cognitive model” of panic attacks.
The cognitive model states that individuals with panic disorder often have distortions in their thinking, of which they may be unaware, and these may give rise to a cycle of fear. The cycle is believed to operate this way: First the individual feels a potentially worrisome sensation such as an increasing heart rate, tightened chest muscles, or a queasy stomach. This sensation may be triggered by some worry, an unpleasant mental image, a minor illness, or even exercise. The person with panic disorder responds to the sensation by becoming anxious. The initial anxiety triggers still more unpleasant sensations, which in turn heighten anxiety, giving rise to catastrophic thoughts. The person thinks, “I am having a heart attack” or “I am going insane,” or some similar thought. As the vicious cycle continues, a panic attack results. The whole cycle might take only a few seconds, and the individual may not be aware of the initial sensations or thoughts.
Proponents of this theory point out that, with the help of a skilled therapist, people with panic disorder often can learn to recognize the earliest thoughts and feelings in this sequence and modify their responses to them. Patients are taught that typical thoughts such as “That terrible feeling is getting worse!” or “I’m going to have a panic attack” or “I’m going to have a heart attack” can be replaced with substitutes such as “It’s only uneasiness; it will pass” that help to reduce anxiety and ward off a panic attack. Specific procedures for accomplishing this are taught. By modifying thought patterns in this way, the patient gains more control over the problem.
In cognitive therapy, discussions between the patient and the therapist are not usually focused on the patient’s past, as is the case with some forms of psychotherapy. Instead, conversations focus on the difficulties and successes the patient is having at the present time, and on skills the patient needs to learn.
The behavioral portion of cognitive-behavioral therapy may involve systematic training in relaxation techniques. By learning to relax, the patient may acquire the ability to reduce generalized anxiety and stress that often sets the stage for panic attacks.
Breathing exercises often are included in the behavioral therapy. The patient learns to control his or her breathing and avoid hyperventilationa pattern of rapid, shallow breathing that can trigger or exacerbate some people’s panic attacks.
Another important aspect of behavioral therapy is exposure to internal sensations called interoceptive exposure. During interoceptive exposure the therapist will do an individual assessment of internal sensations associated with panic. Depending on the assessment, the therapist may then encourage the patient to bring on some of the sensations of a panic attack by, for example, exercising to increase heart rate, breathing rapidly to trigger lightheadedness and respiratory symptoms, or spinning around to trigger dizziness. Exercises to produce feelings of unreality may also be used. Then the therapist teaches the patient to cope effectively with these sensations and to replace alarmist thoughts such as “I am going to die,” with more appropriate ones, such as “It’s just a little dizziness; I can handle it.”
Another important aspect of behavioral therapy is “in vivo” or real-life exposure. The therapist and the patient determine whether the patient has been avoiding particular places and situations, and which patterns of avoidance are causing the patient problems. They agree to work on the avoidance behaviors that are most seriously interfering with the patient’s life. For example, fear of driving may be of paramount importance for one patient, while inability to go to the grocery store may be most handicapping for another.
Some therapists will go to an agoraphobic patient’s home to conduct the initial sessions. Often therapists take their patients on excursions to shopping malls and other places the patients have been avoiding. Or they may accompany their patients who are trying to overcome fear of driving a car.
The patient approaches a feared situation gradually, attempting to stay in spite of rising levels of anxiety. In this way the patient sees that as frightening as the feelings are, they are not dangerous, and they do pass. On each attempt, the patient faces as much fear as he or she can stand. Patients find that with this step-by-step approach, aided by encouragement and skilled advice from the therapist, they can gradually master their fears and enter situations that had seemed unapproachable.
Many therapists assign the patient “homework” to do between sessions. Sometimes patients spend only a few sessions in one-on-one contact with a therapist and continue to work on their own with the aid of a printed manual.
Often the patient will join a therapy group with others striving to overcome panic disorder or phobias, meeting with them weekly to discuss progress, exchange encouragement, and receive guidance from the therapist.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy generally requires at least eight to 12 weeks. Some people may need a longer time in treatment to learn and implement the skills. This kind of therapy, which is reported to have a low relapse rate, is effective in eliminating panic attacks or reducing their frequency. It also reduces anticipatory anxiety and the avoidance of feared situations.
Treatment with Medications
In this treatment approach, which is also called pharmacotherapy, a prescription medication is used both to prevent panic attacks or reduce their frequency and severity, and to decrease the associated anticipatory anxiety. When patients find that their panic attacks are less frequent and severe, they are increasingly able to venture into situations that had been off-limits to them. In this way, they benefit from exposure to previously feared situations as well as from the medication.
The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are now the first line of medication treatment for panic disorder. Other commonly used medications are the tricyclic antidepressants, the high-potency benzodiazepines, and the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Determination of which drug to use is based on considerations of safety, efficacy, and the personal needs and preferences of the patient.
Scientists supported by NIMH are seeking ways to improve drug treatment for panic disorder. Studies are underway to determine the optimal duration of treatment with medications, who they are most likely to help, and how to moderate problems associated with withdrawal.
Many believe that a combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy represents the best alternative for the treatment of panic disorder. The combined approach is said to offer rapid relief, high effectiveness, and a low relapse rate. However, there is a need for more research studies to determine whether this is in fact the case.
Comparing medications and psychological treatments, and determining how well they work in combination, is the goal of several NIMH-supported studies. The largest of these is a 5-year clinical trial that will include 480 patients and involve four centers at the State University of New York at Albany, Cornell University, Hillside Hospital/Columbia University, and Yale University. This study is designed to determine how treatment with imipramine compares with a cognitive-behavioral approach, and whether combining the two yields benefits over either method alone.
This is a form of “talk therapy” in which the therapist and the patient, working together, seek to uncover emotional conflicts that may underlie the patient’s problems.
Although psychodynamic approaches may help to relieve the stress that contributes to panic attacks, they do not seem to stop the attacks directly. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that this form of therapy by itself is effective in helping people to overcome panic disorder or agoraphobia. However, if a patient’s panic disorder occurs along with some broader and pre-existing emotional disturbance, psychodynamic treatment may be a helpful addition to the overall treatment program.
Mental Health, N. (2013). Treatment of Panic Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 10, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/treatment-of-panic-disorder/