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Panic Disorder

Panic (or severe anxiety) that occasionally happens when we encounter a stressful or serious event with drastic outcomes is normal.

However, when a person has severe, recurrent panic attacks which cause significant impairment to his / her life, he / she may be suffering from panic disorder.  

Personality factors, stressful life events, transition periods in a new environment and a past traumatic experience can increase the probability of developing panic disorder.

Signs and Symptoms

The following symptoms are commonly used to diagnose panic disorder :

  • Recurrent, unexpected panic attacks
  • At least one of the attacks is followed by any of the following for a month:
    • Persistent concern about having additional attacks (anticipatory anxiety)
    • Worry about the implications of the attack or its consequences (e.g. losing control, having a heart attack and “going crazy”)
    • Significant change in behaviour related to the attacks

Sufferers often experience:

  • a sudden and unexpected onset of pounding heartbeat
  • shakes
  • cold sweat
  • breathlessness
  • giddiness

These are conditions associated with intense fear and tension. Sufferers and their families often mistake the physical symptoms of panic attack as a medical condition (e.g. heart problems or a severe asthmatic attack), and therefore present themselves to the Accident & Emergency Department. The physical and laboratory examinations will not show anything physically wrong with the person.

Treatment

Early assessment and treatment are essential. Psychotherapy is effective in addressing panic disorder and where appropriate antidepressants may be prescribed. People with panic disorder may need treatment for other emotional problems that may arise because of the disorder. These include clinical depression or alcohol/tranquiliser abuse which can interfere with recovery.

  • Psychotherapy
    Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for panic disorder. CBT helps a person identify and reconstruct negative automatic thoughts and beliefs linked to an experience that provokes panic.
    Other forms of psychotherapy such as Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) and Psychodynamic Therapy have also shown benefits. These therapies can help by working through conflicts in interpersonal relationships – including problems in early relationships from childhood that are affecting present relations. Relaxation techniques are useful and can be used to stop or prevent symptoms of anxiety from escalating into panic.
  • Medication
    Antidepressant medicines alter the chemical imbalance in the brain, which helps to block symptoms of panic. These medicines can treat both the anxiety and depressive symptoms which may co-exist in many sufferers.

    A combination of psychotherapy and medication can often produce good results, with noticeable improvements within six to eight weeks. Psychotherapy can improve the effectiveness of medication, help people who have not responded to medicines, and reduce the likelihood of relapse for those who have discontinued medication.

Other Support

Many sufferers will also benefit from self-help or support groups, and community resources such as available helplines. There are also many websites with useful information for people to find out more about this condition. Better awareness of this condition and professional help will enable sufferers to better deal with this illness. A healthy lifestyle including positive thinking, stress management and proper diet, is also essential for good mental health.

To make an appointment to see a doctor, please call 6389 2200.

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