In today’s world, it’s not uncommon to find yourself feeling overwhelmed. Intense worries and fears about work, home life, and other stressors can take a toll on your body and mind. However, if you ever find that these fears get so intense at certain times, manifesting in the form of panic so much so that they start to interfere with your daily functioning, you may be living with panic disorder.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, approximately 4% of Canadians will deal with the symptoms of panic disorder at least once in their lifetime. Panic disorder is characterized by the occurrence of frequent, unanticipated feelings of extreme fear and anxiety, called panic attacks, which often come along with physical symptoms. While panic disorder can feel insurmountable and debilitating, there are several treatment options available to help people learn to cope with their fears and anxieties and recover from the disorder.
What are the Symptoms of a Panic Disorder?
People with panic disorder can experience powerful fears and worries over the possibility of having other panic attacks in the future and the possible consequences they may lead to. People report feeling afraid that they may lose control, experience a heart attack, or feel like they are “going crazy”.
Panic disorder can also move people to engage in avoidant behaviours, in order to feel sheltered and protected from situations in which they might have another attack. Avoidance of these situations can greatly decrease an individual’s quality of life, causing them to miss social events or discontinue engaging in exercise. Importantly, avoidance can also prevent a person from discovering that the situation or event they fear is not as dangerous as it seems in those panicky moments.
Biological Influences that Cause Panic Disorders
However, temperament is not the only biological explanation for this kind of anxiety disorder. It is well understood that feelings of anxiety can be influenced by our brain structures and how they communicate. One of the main systems involved in anxiety is our limbic system. Sitting in the middle of the brain, the limbic system’s primary responsibility is to aid in communication between the upper part of our brain, the cortex, and the brain stem below.
The brain stem uses the limbic system to relay information about how our body is reacting to the environment around us. Any changes within the body that may result in our lives being in danger, such as heavier breathing or a pounding heartbeat, are noted and sent through the limbic system to the cortex so that we can act accordingly to increase the odds of our survival.
Psychological Influences for Panic Disorders
Our individual psychological makeups can also influence whether or not we develop panic disorder. For example, we might experience a sense of extreme fear in response to a truly dangerous situation, like encountering a large, snarling or angry-looking dog. This response would be called a true alarm because our body would be correctly identifying a genuine threat.
The brain might then associate the internal sensations we felt and the circumstances of the dog or environment with the sensation of fear, such that some, susceptible people, like those who may not have had much prior experience with dogs, might then begin to fear all dogs, places that are similar to the one where the snarling dog was encountered, or any situation where their body reacted in the same way as in that original one.
The tricky thing with panic attacks is that after the first attack, your body may start to associate internal cues with the immense fear and overwhelming feelings of a panic attack. So, in situations like engaging in vigorous exercise and having your heartbeat increase may lead you to feel like you are experiencing the same intense danger that leads to panic. Internal and external cues can trigger unexpected panic attacks that can become an unwelcome interference in our daily functioning.
How to Treat a Panic Disorder
Luckily, panic disorder is extremely treatable. Psychological therapies have been shown to act as effective and long-lasting treatments for panic disorder and are often used in conjunction with medications to help people who experience frequent panic attacks. More specifically, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help individuals overcome feelings of panic and get them back to a higher level of functioning.
CBT is based on the understanding that our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions can greatly affect our behaviour. Through CBT, psychologists and psychotherapists can help people work to change the patterns of thought that may lead them to panic in certain situations, ultimately changing their behaviours for the betterment of their mental, physical, and emotional health.
Research has shown that people with panic disorder are often more prone to holding self-defeating beliefs which can lead to decreases in self-esteem and increases in anxiety. These negative patterns of thought have been shown to be associated with increased instances of panic attacks.
Medication therapies such as benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can also benefit individuals in the short term. Although, it has been shown that medication alone can lead to higher relapse rates for panic disorder when individuals stop taking the drug.
Positive Self-Talk to Treat Panic Disorders
CBT provides the tools to help individuals cope with these thoughts and their symptoms through a simple, two-step practice. The first step taken to help someone with panic disorder involves teaching them how to recognize and challenge the negative thoughts that lead to their increased anxiety and apprehension. Psychologists can help people identify the habitual thought patterns that they routinely fall into. Becoming aware of how our thoughts influence our behaviour can help us change how we think for the better.
Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment is a team of psychologists and counsellers in Oakville, ON. We specialize in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy(CBT) and Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression and anxiety for children, teens and adults.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy & Emotion-Focused Therapy
The goal of cognitive behaviour therapy is to help individuals become aware of the thoughts and patterns of behaviour that keep them feeling stuck. Its focus is on the ‘here-and-now’ to help relieve current symptoms and address current problems.
Emotion-Focused Therapy is an approach to couples and family issues that focuses on identifying and correcting repetitive and dysfunctional patterns that leave people feeling alone and unsupported. EFT helps members of a couple or family to remain engaged with each other in order to better communicate what each really needs from the other.