What are Panic Attacks or Panic Disorder?

Panic Disorder is comprised of very intense panic attacks, which last for a short duration (minutes to a few hours at most). The person having a panic attack feels they may faint or even die. Symptoms include chest pains, heart palpitations, hot and cold flashes, feelings of unreality, dizziness, or faintness (although it is extremely rare for anyone experiencing a panic attack to actually faint). A major characteristic of Panic Disorder is an inability to identify any specific cause for the panic. Feelings of powerlessness make each attack even more terrifying and unexpected. Oftentimes, after suffering a panic attack in public, a person feels ashamed or embarrassed, and they begin manifesting anticipatory anxiety. This anxiety can lead to isolating or phobic behaviors and ultimately, social anxiety or agoraphobia.

What causes Panic Attacks or Panic Disorder?

Panic attacks are a type of anxiety disorder. Panic Disorder appears in families, suggesting there is a genetic basis. Panic attacks are also associated with a history of psychological trauma, and attacks may be triggered specifically by factors related to previous trauma. Panic attacks can also occur with seemingly no specific trigger. Specific medical conditions can be associated with panic attacks, including mitral valve prolapse, thyroid problems and hypoglycemia. Persons taking cocaine or methamphetamine, over-the-counter stimulants, or high levels of caffeine have an increased risk of having panic attacks. Stress is often a precipitating factor for panic attacks. Accordingly, Panic Disorder often arises during transitional periods in life such as graduating from college, changing jobs, divorce or even marriage and birth of a child. A history of physical or sexual abuse, or psychological trauma is associated with panic attacks.

How is Panic Disorder diagnosed?

The diagnosis of Panic Disorder is derived from a history of recurrent, unexpected panic attacks associated with persistent worrying or fear of having future attacks. Complications of panic attacks include broader anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia or avoidant or isolating behaviors. Specific symptoms including rapid heart rate (palpitations), dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, nausea, fear of loss of control, or anxiousness occurring over a discrete period of time, fit the diagnosis, as well. A thorough evaluation is necessary, including a medical assessment and list of medications or drugs that a Client may be taking. Alcohol or drug abuse and self-medication can confuse the diagnostic picture. The clinician should endeavor to uncover the specific triggers for the panic attacks. Evidence that the panic attacks have interfered with the Client’s everyday living, including negative effects on family, friends, work or school is also important.

Actress Kim Basinger vividly recalls her first adult panic attack, “I was in a health-food store. All of a sudden everything became silent. I could see people’s mouths moving, but there was nothing inside my head other than these strange sounds. My hands were shaking. I was sweating so profusely I could not move…I didn’t leave the house for six months,” Basinger adds. Even though her career was booming, she became depressed. “I felt completely paralyzed… I couldn’t go out without feeling that I might unwind. You want to just get up and scream or run.

What is the Prognosis for Panic Disorder?

Panic Disorder has an excellent prognosis when effectively managed with psychological treatment and when necessary, medication. In addition to effective psychotherapy, proper sleep habits and stress management (through the use of relaxation techniques) and psycho-education can significantly improve the wellness of someone with Panic Disorder. Panic attacks may be so incapacitating, there may be fear and avoidance around seeking help. Furthermore, persons with Panic Disorder may be predisposed to other conditions, especially agoraphobia, social anxiety, depression or substance abuse, which can make treatment more complex. When appropriate, anti-anxiety medications, beta-blockers, or antidepressants can help persons with Panic Disorder recover more quickly. However, many prescription medications can be addicting or counterproductive to the treatment of this condition. Thus it is important to find a mental health provider with significant experience in dealing with anxiety and panic.

Persons with Panic Disorder may be misdiagnosed. Oftentimes the symptoms or panic attacks are attributed to a medical condition, such as a heart arrhythmia or asthma. Finding the proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan is of the utmost importance. Substance abuse (especially alcohol, marijuana or cocaine) and self-medication is also prevalent and may dramatically interfere with effective psychological and medical treatment. Persons with Panic Disorder may isolate themselves (agoraphobia), and they often have problems relating to family or loved ones, lacking an effective social support structure that is important to help with their recovery.

How does PCH Treatment Center treat Panic Disorder or Panic Attacks?

It is important for a person suffering from serious or severe panic attacks which are interfering with their daily functioning or well-being to seek psychological treatment as soon as possible. PCH Treatment Center has extensive expertise in treating panic attacks and anxiety disorders. The PCH Treatment team is comprised of highly qualified and skillful mental health professionals with expertise in both psychodynamic psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Upon admission, each Client is assigned a doctoral level therapist who performs a full assessment. Then in conjunction with the clinical team, a treatment plan is developed. The foundation of treatment at PCH Treatment Center is individual psychotherapy. This is complemented by other modalities including Somatic Experiencing and sensorimotor therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), mentalization, mindfulness-based stress reduction, expressive arts, anger management, sleep management, psycho-education, and neurofeedback. Holistic therapies including yoga, mindfulness meditation, acupuncture and massage therapy also contribute to recovery and healing. Optional family therapy programs are available. Family groups incorporate family members or significant others into the Client’s treatment environment (when appropriate). Additionally, the PCH psychiatry team assesses each Client’s medication regimen. Our goal is to minimize the amount of medication for each Client. In utilizing this wide array of treatment modalities, PCH has developed an effective, immersive treatment experience that uniquely manages panic attacks, panic disorder and anxiety disorders.

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