Fighting Fear: Living with Panic Disorder
You’re sitting in an airplane, clenching the armrests with your fingers when your heart starts pounding. Maybe the walls feel like they’re closing in on you or you just get this intense feeling of dread. You start to feel dizzy, shake, sweat, like you’re going to be sick. All you want to do is get up and run out, but the door is shut. You’re scared that you will lose control, do something embarrassing, or even die. This is what people living with panic disorder face not necessarily every day, but at any given moment. Whether in a car, plane, supermarket, or at home, a panic attack can hit at any time without warning. Approximately 5% of the US adult population suffers from panic disorder and has to learn to live with it and work through it.
Here are some of the facts behind what exactly Panic Disorder is.
What is Panic Disorder?
Panic disorder is a psychiatric condition where you experience debilitating fear, anxiety, often times without any particular reason. It is an extremely serious condition that has psychological, emotional, and physiological responses. Panic Disorder consists of episodes called panic attacks, where the fear response in your body is disproportionate to the actual threat of the situation, which more often than not is actually not threatening at all. However, just because you experience panic attacks does not mean that you have panic disorder. One of the distinguishing factors of panic disorder is having a constant fear of getting another panic attack that in turn affects your quality of life and the way you function.
Living with Panic Disorder: Symptoms
When a panic attack starts, it usually lasts approximately ten minutes and can include any of the following symptoms:
- trouble breathing
- chest pain
- rapid heart beat
- a feeling of impending doom or dread
- shortness of breath
- feeling of choking or smothering
- feeling like you are going to die
Living with Panic Disorder: Causes
Like many psychiatric disorders, the exact cause of panic disorder has not been fully explored. However, research has revealed that there is a combination of factors that could result in someone having a higher proclivity towards the condition. Family history, or genetics, has shown to be a fairly good indicator. Much like heart disease or other hereditary diseases, it can sometimes be passed on by parents. Panic disorder can also be caused by structural abnormalities in the brain. We already know that panic disorder involves a faulty ‘fight or flight’ response, so the theory is that issues with regulating the brain cause it. While genetics and biological factors definitely contribute, panic disorder can also be caused by environmental factors. Substance abuse and major life stresses can induce panic attacks that can turn into panic disorder.
Living With Panic Disorder: Treatment Options
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that involves making someone recognize the connection between his or her thoughts and behaviors. The point of CBT for those with panic disorder is to teach the patient how the panic attacks start and how to not perpetuate them. They learn to question their negative thoughts about panic attacks, decatastrophize, and stop the panic spiral. Over time, the patient will be forced to face their fear in little increments to lower the anxiety associated with the fear.
Most people respond best to a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. Generally, those with panic disorder are prescribed antidepressants such as SSRI’s or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Examples of SSRI’s are Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and many others. However, Anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax, Ativan, or Klonopin are also sometimes used to treat panic disorder.
If you have been diagnosed with panic disorder, or suspect that you should be, don’t be afraid to reach out. Therapy, mediation, or whatever combination is right for you, can give you the help you need.