If you are one of the millions of Americans who suffer from some sort of panic disorder, you don’t need to be told just how devastating it can be. Panic attacks can alter your life in numerous negative ways, making you afraid to engage in regular activities and causing you untold hours of pain and suffering. Thankfully, as painful as they can be, panic attacks are very treatable. With therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, you can get your life back to normal.
What Is Panic Disorder?
It’s normal to get stressed, and in specific situations, many people may begin to feel a rising sense of panic, whether it’s due to a looming deadline or making a speech in front of a large crowd. Experiencing these emotions, however, does not mean you have panic disorder. In medical terms, panic disorder is a specific mental health disorder that usually involves repeated, sustained panic attacks over a period of multiple weeks or longer. If you have panic disorder, these panic attacks can make it feel as if you are dying or must run away from a situation.
Panic disorder comes with sensations that are both physical and mental. As a result of these symptoms, a person may become afraid of doing things that they previously enjoyed or avoid taking part in activities that they once engaged in. In the long run, this can lead to personal and professional damage as well as agoraphobia, which is a fear of going outside into public or social situations. There is also evidence to suggest that, in extreme situations, panic disorder can lead to suicide.
It is important to understand that panic disorder is extremely common – more common than many people may realize. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.7% of American adults had panic disorder last year. That would equal more than 5.5 million Americans, an exceptionally high number. The same study noted that panic disorder was more prevalent in women than men, although it remains to be seen whether this is because women are more likely to have panic attacks or simply more likely to seek treatment for them.
The number of young adults with panic disorder, defined as teens aged 13-18, is rising. There are many suspected causes for this, including ongoing world events, social media, increased pressures, decreased sleep, and more. Studies show that 2.3% of all teens have some sort of panic disorder. Interestingly, while the gender gap still exists for teenagers and panic disorder, the gap is smaller among teens than adults.
What Causes Panic Disorder?
It is not possible to say that one specific thing causes panic disorder. Indeed, a variety of causes are likely responsible for panic attacks in general. These include:
- Genetics: There is no question that there is a strong genetic component when it comes to panic attacks. Multiple specific genes have been tied to the prevalence of panic disorder, and these genes can be passed down through generations. As a result, those with a family history of panic disorder appear more likely to suffer from panic disorder themselves.
- Stress: Experiencing stress is a feeling that everyone is familiar with. However, when felt in the extreme, stress can overwhelm the body’s ability to cope with everyday activities and lead to panic attacks or panic disorder. This is why stress management and lifestyle changes can be so important for coping with panic attacks.
- Trauma: Traumatic events can play a particularly important role in the development of panic disorder. These events can include anything from the death of a loved one to a violent assault. That is not to say that panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are the same thing, but there is a significant overlap of experiences between the two.
What Are the Symptoms of Panic Disorder?
If you have never had a panic attack, you may be unfamiliar with what causes one. A panic attack is a feeling of overwhelming dread or anxiety along with the physical and emotional symptoms that come with it. From a physical perspective, symptoms include:
- Heart racing and palpitations
- Upset stomach
- Uncontrolled sweating, particularly around your extremities
- Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
These changes occur because your body’s flight-or-fight system is essentially running amok during a panic attack as your body perceives a threat even though there is none. As a result, your body ramps up and acts as if it has to prepare for a major threat. This leads to all of the physical symptoms described above.
It is also worth noting that these symptoms can mirror many other common and severe physical problems, like a stroke or a heart attack. In fact, many people first realize they have panic disorder when they visit a hospital thinking they are having a heart attack.
In addition to the physical issues caused by panic attacks, your body will experience an array of mental and emotional symptoms as well. These include:
- An overwhelming sense of dread or fear
- A feeling as if you are going to “go crazy” and lose complete control of your body or mind
- A sense of depersonalization, feeling as if you are becoming detached from yourself and reality
These feelings are, of course, exceptionally unpleasant. The good news is that they usually pass after a time, but they can be extremely difficult to get through and manage during an actual panic attack. The worst symptoms of a panic attack generally don’t last for more than 10 minutes.
How Can Panic Disorder Be Treated?
Panic disorder is usually relatively responsive to treatment. Many different methods have been developed to help address the disorder from a comprehensive perspective. These treatment methods are not mutually exclusive and often complement each other.
First, there is psychotherapy. Psychotherapy involves sitting with a trained mental health professional and discussing a variety of elements related to panic disorder, including your emotions, thought processes, and specific methods of coping. Many methods of psychotherapy have been found to be useful in reducing and eliminating panic disorder. These include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most reliable methods of addressing an array of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. It involves discussing the various feelings and thought processes that can lead to panic, then tackling those concerns by reshaping the way that a person thinks and processes emotions. Studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective tool for treating panic disorder.
- Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy can be a challenging but effective method of addressing and reducing panic disorder. It involves gradually exposing oneself to conditions that are known to provoke or create anxiety in a controlled and gradual way, usually with the assistance of a trained professional who can help an individual navigate the serious issues caused by this exposure.
- Support groups: Support groups allow people with anxiety-related issues to band together and talk about their struggles while finding emotional support and sharing advice. While this may not be an option for those who are uncomfortable in group settings, there is evidence to suggest that some people can draw a great deal of comfort from support groups.
In some instances, taking medication may be appropriate for people who suffer from panic disorder. There are many forms of medication that may work, but generally speaking, they fall into two groups.
- Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication like SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: These medications include commonly known drugs such as Zoloft and Lexapro. They act on your brain and specifically alter the way that it processes serotonin, a critical neurotransmitter that is heavily involved in the experience of depression or anxiety. These medications take some time to work – usually a couple of weeks – and can be used for a short or extended period of time.
- Benzodiazepines, like Xanax or Klonopin: These drugs are fast-acting tranquilizers that can often help to control or stop an anxiety attack within 30 minutes and keep symptoms of anxiety at bay for an extended period of time. However, these drugs can be addictive, and users can build up a tolerance to them. As such, they are best used in the short term, and their intake must be closely monitored by a medical professional.
Additionally, lifestyle changes can make a real impact on panic disorder. This disorder is often about much more than genetics and stress levels. You can often make lifestyle changes that can help reduce stress, improve your coping mechanisms, and increase your body’s resilience when it comes to dealing with these challenges. These lifestyle changes include:
- Exercise: Exercise is an effective and positive way of addressing and reducing many mental health challenges. According to studies, even moderate exercise can help to reduce panic disorder. As such, people with anxiety disorders should try to find an exercise program that works for them and commit to doing it on a regular basis. Just 30 minutes of daily physical activity, whether it’s running, walking, or swimming, can help to reduce feelings of anxiety.
- Meditation: Numerous studies show that regular meditation can help reduce panic attacks and aid people in better coping with panic disorder. This is particularly the case with mindfulness meditation, a specific type of meditation in which people focus on their thought process, calm their minds, and work to control the flow of their thoughts.
- Changes in diet: There is a connection between diet and panic disorder, and studies show that healthier diets can help reduce anxiety. This means eating regularly and avoiding processed or heavily sugared foods. Furthermore, people with panic disorder should limit or eliminate caffeine or alcohol. Alcohol, in particular, has been shown to be a huge contributor to anxiety. Many people drink as part of an effort to calm themselves and self-medicate, but in reality, alcohol use and panic disorder are directly correlated. Furthermore, drinking to avoid anxiety can lead to alcohol dependence.
Panic attacks can be disruptive and devastating, but the good news is that there is hope. These disorders can be treated, and you can resume your normal life. NFA Behavioral Health is an example of a treatment center that does extensive work in helping people deal with panic disorder. We offer a variety of mental health, alcohol, and drug programs that can aid with your recovery.
Knowing that you’re not alone is extremely important. That’s why seeking help from professionals in a treatment center is a good idea. You can talk with peers and have a program that is tailored to your needs. Getting help is the first step.