Unfortunately, the general public still doesn’t understand much about anxiety or the debilitating panic attacks that can occur at any time. The misinformation and myths surround panic disorder can stop a person from seeking treatment and further the feelings of isolation. Below are some common myths about panic disorder to help you gain a better understanding. If you suffer from panic disorder, you might want to forward this page on to your friends and relatives, to help them better understand what you are going through.
Myth: Panic disorder is a sign of insanity.
Okay, maybe nobody says this, but how many friends and relatives believe you are “going crazy,” “having a nervous breakdown,” or just “can’t cope with reality?” Some people believe panic attacks are a sign of schizophrenia, a mental illness that can cause delusions and hallucinations. Panic disorder, although classified as a mental illness, does not signify that you are going crazy, seeing things or hearing voices. Panic attacks happen when your “fight or flight” reaction kicks in without just cause. There is not a reason for you to be fearful and if there is, it doesn’t justify the extent of your fear. But your fight or flight response is in high gear.
Myth: People with panic disorder must take medication and will be on medication for the rest of their lives.
Some types of antidepressants (SSRIs) can help to alleviate anxiety in the short-term, however cognitive behavioral therapy is considered the most effective long-term treatment of panic attacks. This type of therapy helps you to change your thought processes about situations, events or places that might trigger an anxiety attack and gradually exposes you to these situations, helping you to feel safe and secure. For example, if elevators trigger panic attacks, a therapist will work with you on first thinking about an elevator until you are comfortable, the next step might be to stand near an elevator. Once you feel secure, you might get on the elevator, with the doors open. All along the therapist is helping you to cope and finding strategies to replace anxious thoughts until you are able to get on an elevator without feeling panic.
Myth: People having a panic attack lose total control.
During a panic attack, it can feel as if you are going crazy or you are going to lose all, however, people experiencing panic attacks do not lose control of either their emotions or physical abilities. Anxiety attacks, although uncomfortable, embarrassing and sometimes debilitating are not dangerous. In many cases, the people around the person having a panic attack never even realize what is going on.
Myth: Severe panic attacks cause heart attacks.
Some people experience chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness or trouble breathing when having a panic attack. These symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack. Some people are first diagnosed with anxiety after seeking treatment for a heart attack, only to find out it was a panic attack. Panic attacks do not cause damage to your heart and heart palpitations are rarely dangerous.
Myth: Panic disorder is not a real illness.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that over 6 million adults in the United States suffer from panic attacks. They recognize this as a real disorder. Panic attacks, when left untreated, can be debilitating.
Myth: There is no treatment for panic attacks.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to be an effective treatment for panic attacks. In addition, there are several medications that can help to relieve anxiety symptoms in the short-term. If you, or someone you know, have panic attacks, it is important to talk with a medical professional to determine which type of treatment would be best.
Myth: People use panic attacks as an excuse to not do something.
The large majority of people suffering from panic attacks would prefer to never have one again. Because these attacks occur without warning, some people are afraid to go to work or to the store, creating a great deal of difficulty in their lives. This is not an excuse, but a very real and very scary reaction to certain situations, places or events.
Myth: Fainting is common when someone has a panic attack.
In reality, fainting is rare for people having panic attacks. It is true that sufferers feel dizzy or have difficulty breathing (hyperventilation or shallow breathing) but most people do not ever faint.
Myth: Panic disorder is caused by ____. (Fill in the blank with your belief)
Scientists do not know for sure what causes panic disorder; however, one of the risk factors is genetics. Those who have a family history of anxiety disorders seem to be at a higher risk for developing panic disorder. Other risks include experiencing trauma, high amounts of stress, coexisting mental illness, major loss in life.
“Anxiety Disorders”, 2009, Author Unknown, National Institute of Mental Health
“Panic Disorder”, Reviewed 2009, July 7, Author Unknown, National Institute of Mental Health
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.