Recent estimates have indicated that at any given time 9.7% of the Australian population may meet the criteria for a diagnosis of panic disorder. This means that almost one in ten people are experiencing frequent and often debilitating panic/anxiety attacks. Anyone can experience panic attacks and they often start for reasons which aren't obvious. If they persist for any length of time you can become depressed, feeling trapped and helpless as a result of the anxiety.

What Is A Panic Attack?  Symptoms of panic attacks include racing heart, lightheadedness, shakiness, dry throat, sweating, nausea and feelings of intense fear or impending doom. Typically when symptoms first occur you worry that you might be going crazy, losing control, having a heart attack/stroke, or that you wont be able to breathe. It's important to know that none of these things can happen as a result of panic attacks no matter how strongly it may feel like it. Panic Attacks often occur in busy & crowded places such as shopping center's and even though people are experiencing strong sensations on the inside, a panic attack typically isn't visible on the outside.

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Other Commonly experienced Symptoms of Panic Attacks Include:

      • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
      • Sweating
      • Trembling or shaking
      • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
      • Feeling of choking
      • Chest pain or discomfort
      • Nausea or abdominal stress
      • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
      • Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself
      • Fear of losing control or going crazy
      • Fear of dying
      • Numbness or tingling sensations
      • Chills or hot flushes  

If you are experiencing fewer than four of these symptoms the attack is known as a limited symptom panic attack rather than a full blown panic attack.

What is Panic Disorder? A person is diagnosed with panic disorder when they suffer frequent and unpredicted panic attacks. A person may also be diagnosed with panic disorder if, following a panic attack, they constantly worry about the consequences of the attack, or worry about having more attacks. Panic Disorder can occur with or without agoraphobia; agoraphobia being fear of open spaces or busy crowded spaces.

How did I Develop Panic Disorder? Panic disorder can occur with just about anybody depending on a number of factors. It can also be triggered by a range of circumstances and sometimes can begin for no obvious reason at all. This is because everybody is capable of experiencing a response called 'the fight or flight response, which is a physiological response controlled by the automated areas of our brain that underlies the onset of panic attacks (click here for more about the fight or flight response). The response physically prepares you to respond to danger (ie fight or run) by making your heart race (to pump blood to the muscles), by making you breathe faster (which can cause you to feel lightheaded or short of breath), by releasing adrenalin (making you tremble and shake) and by making you sweat etc.

The fight or flight response is supposed to occur at times of immediate danger such as if you were being attacked by ferocious dog or a bear. But sometimes the fight or flight alarm system is triggered by mistake and when this occurs you can feel like there is something wrong with you. What you think at these times is typically a logical explanation for the sensations you are feeling (eg my head feels surreal so am I going crazy? or my heart is racing and my chest hurts so am I having a heart attack?). You then ask yourself what triggered the bad feelings and you tend to avoid the situations that you think might trigger them again. Over time this can lead to avoidance of a range of situations or places. For example, if the first attack occurred in a social setting you may start to avoid social interactions, potentially leading to the onset of social anxiety disorder.

Panic disorder and other anxiety problems sometimes do tend to run in families, but the weight of evidence indicates that for panic attacks this is not due to genetics. Rather, anxiety is seen to run in families partly because our responses to situations are learned from those around us when we are very small and some of the responses to situations we learn (eg avoid discomfort whenever possible) tend to make anxiety worse if it appears.

What Can I do to get rid of Panic Attacks/Panic Disorder? In most cases, if left untreated, having one or two panic attacks will not lead to the development of panic disorder. In many cases, however, the panic attacks continue to re-occur and panic disorder ensues. The good news about panic attacks and panic disorder is that they are often completely curable typically without the need for medication. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) treatment programs (which include a technique known as interoceptive exposure) of between eight and sixteen consultations, have been demonstrated to achieve an elimination of panic attacks in up to 94% of cases. CBT is an approach that involves learning specific skills and techniques to stop panic attacks from continuing. It is highly effective and involves much more than just keeping distracted or learning to relax. In fact the latest CBT programmes typically do not include relaxation training, as more often than not trying to relax when you have panic makes you feel more panicky. This understanding has led to anxiety specialists referring to a problem called 'relaxation induced anxiety'. Similarly, distraction techniques or attempting to take your mind off the anxiety or worry may seem to work for a short period of time but typically leads to anxiety coming back more strongly than before. A standard CBT program for panic disorder runs from between 10 to 12 one hour sessions or up to 16 sessions if agoraphobia is present. Successful completion of a program typically results in a full remission of panic attacks that lasts.

Remember: Panic attacks cannot harm you or send you crazy (although at times it may feel like it). Panic attacks result from a physiological system that is impressively designed through millions of years of evolution to assist in saving your life. It doesn't make sense that a system which is designed to save you could harm you. And in fact it can't. Ask yourself- If I was feeling these sensations and a shark was circling around me wouldn't the sensations be expected and normal? because that  is what the responses you are feeling were designed for. They are only a problem because they are occurring my mistake and out of context. The symptoms cannot harm you, but they can can be very uncomfortable if they keep occurring. Fortunately, when this happens the right help can, in most cases, eliminate your fear of panic leaving the response to occur only at times of real danger as it was designed to. If you would like any more assistance dealing with your anxiety, or would like your symptoms to be accurately assessed, click on 'contact us' below or click on blue button in the right column to arrange a consultation.

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