Attacking the Panic – Understanding Panic Disorder
Jameela was at her friend’s boyfriend’s house for a barbecue night. A group of around a dozen people had gathered around and they were all having fun. Although Jameela was also having fun, she somehow felt withdrawn. After about an hour she started getting chills and she felt difficulty breathing, then she had a sharp chest pain and began feeling faint. Her friends rushed her to the nearest hospital. After running some tests, the doctors released her. Jameela had just had her first panic attack.
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Panic attack and its symptoms
Like Jameela, when you have an abrupt surge of intense and extreme fear without any sense of danger, it is called a panic attack. Unlike your regular reaction to stressful situations, a panic attack can be overwhelming to the extent that some people could even mistake it for a heart attack. The following are the symptoms of a panic attack:
- racing heartbeat
- difficulty breathing,
- feeling as if you’re suffocated
- intense terror,
- lightheadedness or nausea
- trembling, sweating, shaking
- choking, chest pains
- hot flashes, or sudden chills
- tingling in fingers or toes
- fear that you are about to die
Panic attack on its own may not be harmful for your physical health as little is known about its causes or its link with the organic system. However, a person who has been through a panic attack may develop fear for the panic attack itself. In Jameela’s case, she stopped attending any large social gatherings because she feared another attack.
Panic is “a sudden strong feeling of fear that prevents reasonable thought and action”, especially in the face of danger or perceived danger. On the other hand, a panic attack has no rhyme or reason as we have seen in Jameela’s case. Also, panic attack does not have any consequences to neither the mind nor body. However, a panic attack can lead to panic disorder which can have disruptive effects.
When fear of panic attack persists and starts to hinder a person’s daily functioning, then it could be a symptom of panic disorder. Referring to Jameela’s case, at the moment she is avoiding social gatherings, but in the future, if she starts avoiding all social outings even when the number of attendees is less, or starts avoiding getting on a slightly crowded bus or train – it then becomes a problem. Soon, because of her fear of getting on the bus/train, she may stop going out altogether. Her whole lifestyle could be altered. Therefore, the fear of panic attacks could lead to panic disorder.
Symptoms of panic disorder
- recurrent and unexpected panic attacks
- persistent fear of having future panic attacks
- change behavior and continue to experience situational avoidance
When you experience the symptoms above for a relatively longer period of time, you must seek professional help. Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder and mental health professionals or licensed therapists can help you diagnose and treat your panic disorder.
Franklin D Roosevelt might have been talking about panic disorder when he said,
“the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.”
Fortunately, even if the thing we fear is fear itself, there are treatment options available and you do not have to live with fear in the future.
If your symptoms are severe, prescription medicines will be helpful to relax you with immediate effect. Along with medication, there are different therapies that can help reduce the symptoms and rehabilitate you back to your previous lifestyle. Cognitive Therapy as well as Behavior Therapy can help you understand and eliminate your symptoms. Often therapists also recommend/train you in relaxation techniques, fear hierarchy, in vivo exposure, etc.