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Panic disorder is a condition that is characterized by panic attacks as well as a persistent fear of having future attacks.  Panic attacks happen when someone has an intense physiological reaction caused by anxiety, which inhibits all ability to function until it passes.  While many people have had one or two panic attacks at stressful times in their lives, this does not necessarily mean that they have panic disorder.  However, when someone has had more than four panic attacks and finds themselves in constant fear of having more, it may be time to seek help from a professional.  Fortunately, treating panic disorder is very technique heavy and can bring relief fairly quickly.

Although they are not dangerous, panic attacks can feel terrifying when they occur.  Many people feel as if they are “going crazy,” having a heart attack, or even feel as if they are going to die when a panic attack comes on.  This is why a key aspect in treating panic disorder is teaching the patient to challenge the cognitive distortion they are experiencing, and to understand that they are not having a heart attack, going crazy, or dying. 

A panic attack is characterized by sudden onset without warning.  When a panic attack begins, the first noticeable change is an increase in heart rate.  After this physiological change occurs, the person will realize that something this happening, which then leads to the person making incorrect interpretations about what is happening, i.e. that they are having a heart attack.  This belief that something very dangerous is occurring increases the person’s anxiety, which in turn increases their heart rate further.  Because of this, their respiration will increase as well, and the person’s body will be working as if they are running a marathon when the person is not.  Thankfully, panic attacks are easy to handle once the person knows what is happening and learns the techniques to calm themselves down.  The first step in working through a panic attack is understanding what is happening.  Being educated on this will reduce uncertainty and reduce anxiety.  The next step is challenging cognitive distortion, as mentioned above.  After that, the person will need to employ a de-escalation technique, which is as simple as breathing slowly.  Breathing slowly will decrease the oxygen level in the person’s bloodstream which will decrease their heart rate and be able to end the panic attack.

As mentioned above, treating panic disorder is very technique heavy, and will include education on the disorder, identifying possible triggers, relaxation techniques such as slow breathing, in addition to other cognitive behavioral treatments.