What is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks are sudden, intense experiences that may include increased heart rate, hyperventilation, numbness, tingling, tightness in chest, dizziness, a sense that things are “unreal,” and a fear that something terrible is about to happen (e.g., you’re going to have a heart attack).
The mind often interprets panic attacks as a sign that you are “going crazy” or about to die. As a consequence, many people end up in the emergency room when they have their first panic attack, because they don’t understand what happening. Fortunately, panic attacks are not medically dangerous and can be treated through specialized forms of psychotherapy.
How Panic Attacks become Panic Disorder
While many people experience occasional panic attacks, the problem really starts when they begin to interfere with daily life. When people begin to fear their next panic attack and take steps to avoid having them, it can turn into something more chronic—Panic Disorder. Some people may also become afraid to leave the house because they don’t want to trigger another panic attack—this is called agoraphobia.
The unfortunate irony is that the more you worry about having another panic attack, the more likely you are to have one because you’re in a constant state of worry, anxiety, and arousal.
Actions associated with Panic Disorder
Do you engage in any of the following behaviors because of your fears of panic?
- Avoid crowded areas or enclosed spaces for fear of having a panic attack
- Carry medication, water, a cell phone, or some other safety item at all times
- Frequently check your pulse or blood pressure
- Avoid activities that you might otherwise enjoy (e.g., physical activity or social events) for fear of having a panic attack
- Avoid highway driving for fear of having an attack
These are signs that panic may be interfering with your life and that you might want to seek treatment.
I think I have Panic Disorder—what are my options?
Medication: Many people who seek medical help for panic disorder are given a prescription of a benzodiazepine (“benzo”) by their doctor. Valium and Xanax are common examples. Although a benzo can help calm you down for a while when you’re feeling anxious, it does nothing to alleviate the underlying worry about panic attacks. Additionally, panic attacks may come on too suddenly to anticipate with medication, or people can become so dependent on medication—which can also be physically addictive—that they are afraid to be without it. Medication is a short-term solution.
Therapy: The single most proven treatment for Panic Disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT involves learning strategies for increasing awareness when you are at risk for having a panic attack and rolling with it when you do.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT said “act” for short) is a newer form of CBT that uses mindfulness and acceptance strategies to reduce the struggle with anxiety and panic so that you can get back to living your life again without being so impeded by panic and worry about panic. ACT also has some evidence for being helpful for panic attacks and is another option.
Breaking free of Panic
The only way to effectively treat Panic Disorder is to let go of the struggle with anxiety and panic, and to learn to experience panic attacks in a more open and less defended way. Ironically, by learning to accept anxiety and panic you’re less likely to have panic attacks. While it may seem impossible, many people have learned how to do this. Dozens of research studies, with thousands of people, show that cognitive-behavioral therapy is very effective with panic disorder.
Benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy
- Time-limited (10-20 sessions are enough for most people)
- Effective in the long-term
- Doesn’t require medication
If you decide you are ready to start taking your life back, the first step is to send us your information below. We will then call or email you to and discuss how we can start to help. We can answer any questions you have about therapy and get you in contact with someone who specializes in treating panic disorder. We take most major forms of health insurance if you would like to use that to help pay for treatment.