Panic & Panic Disorder FAQsby Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer
Q. How Common is Panic Disorder?
A. Very. Panic disorder affects millions of people.
Q. Who Gets Panic Disorder?
A. More women than men are affected, roughly twice as many, but panic disorder is found across all age groups.
Q. I've Had a Panic Attack. Do I Have Panic Disorder?
A. No. A panic attack isn't that uncommon and a single panic attack is unlikely to require treatment.
Q. What are the Features of Panic Disorder?
A. Mainly that the person has experienced recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. They are likely to be preoccupied by the thought of further panic attacks and concerned about the implications (fainting, incontinence, embarrassment, death).
Q. What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?
A. It is a very unpleasant, some say terrifying, sensation. The person feels weak, dizzy and nauseous. Chest pains, difficulty breathing and rapid heart rate are common. The sensation is commonly mistaken for a heart attack.
Q. How Long Does a Panic Attack Last?
A. Typically a few minutes but they have been known to last for some hours.
Q. I've Heard of People Having a Panic Attack in Their Sleep?
A. That's correct. Panic can occur during non-dream sleep.
Q. Why is Panic Associated with Agoraphobia?
A. People who experience panic feel extremely vulnerable and so the home often becomes their place of sanctuary. Normal activities, such as driving, shopping, social functions are avoided. If the person feels their escape is blocked they become more anxious, so sitting in a busy theatre, cinema or restaurant may present problems as can standing in a queue. Sometimes the person is prepared to do such things if accompanied by a trusted friend or a loved one.
Q. Can Panic be Treated?
A. Yes. In fact the person may respond very well to treatment. Education is an important factor as this often explodes many of the myths as to why panic occurs and what may happen as a result. A typical package of treatment with a psychologist may take around 12 sessions, but this can vary according to need and progress. A central feature is learning that sensations can be controlled by learning to control breathing and relax muscles.
Q. So, Learning To Relax is Important?
A. In normal circumstances yes, but a few people have what is termed relaxation induced panic. This probably relates in some fashion to the sense of losing control that accompanies a state of relaxation. The therapist will compensate using other strategies such as learning how to use imagery to good effect and relaxing muscle groups.
Q. Is Treatment Standard?
A. No. Although relaxation combined with cognitive therapy is popular, proven and effective, some therapists employ different techniques. For example, they may use group rather than individual sessions, or use biofeedback as a means of feedback. The goals are the same, but the process may differ according to the background and training of the therapist.
Q. Can't Medication Help?
A. Yes. It's fair to say that medication can't cure panic but it can help to take the edge of the symptoms of acute anxiety that accompany it. Essentially though the best treatment for panic is through psychological intervention.
Q. Can't I Use a Self-Help Book?
A. There's nothing stopping you but a self-help book can't ask you questions or give you feedback about your progress. Self-help also requires a lot of motivation and honesty. If you have what is known as uncomplicated panic, that is, you have no other symptoms such as depression, it may be worth a try. On balance, my advice is to use self-help techniques more as a way to support therapy and to build the techniques into your daily routines.
Q. Is There Anything I Can Do Right Now?
A. Yes. There are lifestyle issues you can address the moment you leave this webpage. For example, cut out caffeine and smoking. Do some daily exercise. Learn more about the causes of panic and the treatments. Learn how to breathe and build relaxation into your life. Cut out fatty, starchy, sugary foods and drinks.
Q. Where Can I Find a Therapist?
A. The American Psychological Society has a handy therapist locator.
The British Psychological Society has a Find a Psychologist facility. As do the