Panic attacks and panic disorder can be very disabling conditions for the people who suffer from them. Sometimes they can lead to avoidance of any activity or environment that has been associated with feelings of panic in the past. This can, in turn, lead to more severe and disabling disorders such as agoraphobia.
Panic attacks typically begin in young adulthood, but can occur at any time during an adult’s life. A panic episode usually begins abruptly, without warning, and peaks in about 10 minutes. It can last anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour or longer. Panic attacks are characterized by a rapid heart beat, sweating, trembling, and a shortness of breath. Other symptoms can include chills, hot flashes, nausea, cramps, chest pain, tightness in the throat, trouble swallowing, and dizziness.
Women are more likely than men to have panic attacks. Many researchers believe the body’s natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart and breathing would speed up as your body readied itself for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. No obvious stressor is present, but something trips the body’s alarm system.
Treatment emphasizing a three-pronged approach is most effective in helping people overcome this disorder: education, psychotherapy, and medication.
Before undergoing any treatment for panic disorder, a person should undergo a thorough medical examination (e.g., a physical) 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 arrhythmia (disturbances in the rhythm of the heartbeat) — can cause symptoms resembling those of panic disorder.
Psychotherapy for Panic Disorder
Education is usually the first factor in psychotherapy treatment of this disorder. The patient can be instructed about the body’s “fight-or-flight” response and the associated physiological sensations. Learning to recognize and identify such sensations is usually an important initial step toward treatment of panic disorder. Individual psychotherapy is usually the preferred modality and its length is generally short-term, under 12 sessions. An emphasis on education, support, and the teaching of more effective coping strategies are usually the primary foci of therapy. Family therapy is usually unnecessary and inappropriate.
Therapy can also teach relaxation and imagery techniques. These can be used during a panic attack to decrease immediate physiological distress and the accompanying emotional fears. Discussion of the client’s irrational fears (usually of dying, passing out, becoming embarrassed) during an attack is appropriate and often beneficial in the context of a supportive therapeutic relationship. A cognitive or rational-emotive approach in this area is best. A behavioral approach emphasizing graduated exposure to panic-inducing situations is most-often associated with related anxiety disorders, such as agoraphobia or social phobia. It may or may not be appropriate as a treatment approach, depending upon the client’s specific issues.
Group therapy can often be used just as effectively to teach relaxation and related skills. Psychoeducational groups in this area are often beneficial. Biofeedback, a specific technique which allows the client to receive either audio or visual feedback about their body’s physiological responses while learning relaxation skills, is also an appropriate psychotherapeutic intervention.
All relaxation skills and assignments taught in a therapy session must be reinforced by daily exercises on the patient’s part. This cannot be emphasized enough. If the client is unable or unwilling to complete daily homework assignments in practicing specific relaxation or imagery skills, then therapy emphasizing such skill sets will likely be unsuccessful or less successful. This proactive approach to change (and the expectations of the therapist that the client will agree to this approach) needs to be clearly explained at the onset of therapy. Discussing these expectations clearly up-front makes the success of such techniques much greater.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
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 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 hyperventilation — a pattern of rapid, shallow breathing that can trigger or exacerbate some people’s panic attacks.
Another important aspect of behavioral therapy is becoming attuned and aware of one’s internal sensations. During this process, the therapist helps a person become more aware of their internal sensations associated with panic. Depending on each individual, 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.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy generally requires at least twelve (12) weeks to start becoming effective. 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.
Other Therapy Treatments
There are other types of psychotherapy treatments available for panic disorder. Psychodynamic therapy 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.
Another treatment option is a psychotherapy group. Such groups meet usually once a week with other people who are also striving to overcome panic disorder or phobias. These weekly meetings are used to discuss progress, exchange encouragement, and receive guidance from a trained therapist who leads the group.
Medications for Panic Disorder
A lot of people who suffer from panic disorder can successfully be treated without resorting to the use of any medication. However, when medication is needed, the most commonly-prescribed class of drugs for panic disorders are the benzodiazepines (such as clonazepam and alprazolam) and the SSRI antidepressants. It is rarely appropriate to provide medication treatment alone, without the use of psychotherapy to help educate and change the patient’s behaviors related to their association of certain physiological sensations with fear.
There are a few long-used medications typically used to treat panic disorder: Clonazepam (Klonopin, Rivotril) and alprazolam (Xanax). Clonazepam and alprazolam are generally preferred by most doctors to antidepressant drugs because of their less severe side effects. Xanax can be addicting for individuals and should be used with care. Treatment with either clonazepam or alprazolam should be discontinued by tapering it off slowly, because of the possibility of seizures with abrupt discontinuation.
In this treatment approach, 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.
Self-Help for Panic Attacks
Self-help methods for the treatment of this disorder are often overlooked by the medical profession because very few professionals are involved in them. Many support groups exist within communities throughout the world which are devoted to helping individuals with this disorder share their commons experiences and feelings. Self-help books may also be helpful for a person to read, as they often provide techniques and coping tips an individual can use in their daily lives to help combat panic feelings.
Patients can be encouraged to try out new coping and relaxation skills with people they meet within support groups. They can be an important part of expanding the individual’s skill set and developing new, healthier social relationships. An online support group for panic disorder is also available.