Almost half of the population will experience a panic attack over the course of their lives. Having a single panic attack is vastly different though to living with panic disorder, which tends to be far more disabling for those affected. It is estimated that 5% of the Australian population will experience a panic disorder in their lifetime, with women more likely to be impacted than men. The great news though is that panic disorder is a highly treatable condition!
What is a panic attack?
At least four of the following must be present during a panic attack:
- heart palpitations, or racing/pounding heart
- shaking or trembling
- shortness of breath or a feeling of choking
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal upset
- chills or heat sensations/sweats
- dizziness, light-headedness, or feeling faint or unsteady
- numbness or tingling sensations
- feelings of unreality or depersonalization
- fear of losing control or of ‘going crazy’
- fear of dying
How is a panic attack different from a panic disorder?
If you’ve experienced a panic attack and then find yourself worrying about having another one and are making maladaptive changes in your life to avoid another attack, there is a good chance that you may be suffering from panic disorder.
There are two types of panic attacks that people tend to experience: Expected and unexpected. An expected panic attack might occur for example, when going to the footie or being in large crowds. Unexpected panic attacks do not need to have an identifiable trigger and can happen at any time, even when you are asleep.
What causes panic disorder?
There is no single cause of a panic disorder. Some of the factors that contribute to a panic disorder are:
- Genetic factors: People who have a first-degree relative with panic disorder have an increased chance of developing the disorder.
- Neurobiological factors: Studies suggest that in individuals with panic disorder, fear circuitry in the brain may be oversensitive and be triggered by events that pose no threat to the person.
- Cognitive factors: People with panic disorder are thought to have a higher sensitivity to internal bodily sensations and misinterpret any changes in these sensations as being life-threatening. This increased sensitivity, unhelpful thoughts, avoidance and safety behaviours are thought to contribute to panic disorder.
- Stressors throughout the lifecycle: Stressors such as childhood maltreatment, death of a loved one, physical illness or excessive substance use might contribute towards panic disorder.
How is panic disorder treated?
Treatment can be very effective in reducing the number and severity of panic attacks in most people. There are two main types of treatment for panic disorder: psychological treatments and medication. Sometimes a combined approach is most effective.
If you are interested in treatment for your panic disorder, our psychologist Greg Hack can support you. Greg employs Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), a highly evidence-based psychotherapy for treating panic disorders. He will help you to learn that although the symptoms may be uncomfortable, they are not dangerous. As you start to see that you can cope, the frequency and intensity of your attacks will lessen over time. Greg also has expertise in treating trauma, other types of anxiety disorders, depression, burnout, compassion fatigue, grief and loss, relationship difficulties and phobias.