Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder

What is Panic Disorder?

Panic and anxiety are natural responses to stressful or dangerous situations. For thousands of years our instincts have served us by warning us something bad might happen soon. When we get anxious - particularly when something has caught us by surprise – our body reacts in a number of ways.

For example, we can experience:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Heavy sweating
  • Muscle tension

Generally, these symptoms disappear quickly and are a reaction to a specific situation. Panic attacks occur suddenly and with no obvious trigger. They can be quite severe and disabling but generally only last 5 to 20 minutes. Statistics vary but it is estimated up to 10% of the population will have a few panic attacks at some stage throughout their life.

Panic Disorder is the term used when a person has recurring and disabling panic attacks. Some people may experience one every few months and others may have them several times a week. Because the attacks can seem to come ‘out of nowhere’ and develop rapidly they can be frightening. Attacks can occur while driving, while out with friends or even when a person is asleep.

Sufferers often live in constant fear of when and where the next attack will happen. This fear can be so intense that it has a strong negative impact on the person’s life. They may stop doing certain activities, give up work or potentially become housebound in an attempt to avoid having a panic attack in public.

Panic Disorder is believed to affect up to 5% of Australians including more women than men. Onset generally starts around the early to mid 20’s but can occur at any age (even in children).


What causes Panic Disorder?

There is no exact cause of Panic Disorder. Instead there are several key factors that are linked to it.

  • Genetics – When one family member has the disorder, close relatives have an increased risk of also developing it. However it does not mean that will automatically happen.
  • Biological factors – Changes in brain chemistry can have a big impact on behaviour patterns. Neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) may become imbalanced and perform erratically.
  • Medical conditions – Some conditions such as asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and several heart and lung conditions are known to be strongly linked to Panic Disorder
  • Stress – major traumas like car accidents, marriage breakdown or bereavement may cause a person to bottle up their thoughts and emotions. Some believe that panic attacks are one mechanism the body uses to release those emotions, rather like releasing a pressure valve.


What are the most common symptoms?

Symptoms of Panic Disorder include those of general anxiety listed above. However they are usually much more intense and can even be terrifying for the sufferer. They may experience:

  • Severe tightening of the chest, difficulty breathing or the sensation of a heart attack.
  • A feeling of choking or suffocating.
  • Hot or cold flushes or intensive sweating.
  • Dizziness or feeling faint.
  • Shaking, shivering or having a numb or tingling sensation
  • Needing to urinate urgently.
  • An unexplained feeling of dread.
  • A fear of losing control or of being in danger.
  • A sense of detachment or depersonalisation which may increase confusion and anxiety.

Those who suffer from Panic Disorder often find that as their lifestyle is affected they lose self-confidence. They may withdraw from social activities or develop drug or alcohol addictions. They avoid situations they fear may trigger an attack.

Sufferers may fear places where an urgent escape may be difficult (such as train travel) or places where having an attack in public would be very embarrassing (like at a party). In some cases this need for avoidance can develop into agoraphobia.

Symptoms do vary in intensity and from person to person. Individuals may have periods of high activity and then stretches with few or no symptoms.


What are the main treatment options?

Panic Disorder can be managed very effectively using psychotherapy (counselling or ‘talking therapy’). While it cannot be ‘cured’ as such, the use of positive coping strategies can have a big impact on self-esteem and empowerment.

Therapists or Counsellors often use an approach called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or they may combine several approaches to suit the individual. CBT is based on the notion that our thought and feelings have a direct impact on our behaviour at a subconscious level. By exploring the underlying thought patterns and looking for their possible causes and triggers, the sufferer can learn new ways to cope and better manage their daily activities.

Medication is sometimes used to help with associated depression and anxiety but it is normally offered alongside counselling as part of a treatment plan.

If your feelings of anxiety have evolved into regular panic attacks your GP can help you. They will look at all your physical and emotional symptoms over a period of time and usually offer a diagnosis. They can then create a team care arrangement for you so you can see a professional therapist and other relevant health care professionals.

You can also join a support group either ‘in person’ or online. Sharing your experiences with people who understand them can be extremely liberating. Your doctor or counsellor can help you to find a group near you.


Why seek professional help?

Mental illness can be frightening and isolating, especially if you are in a depressed or suicidal state. Talking to friends and family may help but having the support and guidance of a professional counsellor is usually more beneficial. Therapy sessions are confidential and non-judgemental. Seeking help early gives you a greater chance of overcoming your condition and getting your life back to normal.


Where to find help

Our directory lists hundreds of psychotherapists, psychologists, counsellors and other therapists from around Australia. These mental health experts offer counselling over the phone and online in addition to one-on-one consultations. Many also offer workshops and seminars. 

Enter your postcode or suburb into our search box to see a comprehensive list of the health care professionals near you.


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