By Jeremy Ragster, LMFT at Two Chairs
A sudden rush of distressing thoughts. Uncontrollable worry and difficulty tempering down troublesome thoughts and feelings. Extreme fear that something awful might happen seemingly out of nowhere; you just know it! Racing thoughts and shortness of breath. Your hands begin to shake uncontrollably, and you feel odd tingling sensations.
If you have ever felt any combination of these symptoms you have likely experienced a panic attack; if ongoing, Panic Disorder.
Panic attacks and Panic Disorder can make you feel lonely and isolated because you might think you are the only one who has experienced those feelings. Rest assured that you are not alone. There is help and most importantly, there is hope. At places like Prairie Health, Two Chairs and other mental health providers, compassionate and skilled clinicians provide an open and safe environment to gain the necessary skills to counteract Panic Disorder and increase functioning. First, let’s get started with the basics.
What is Panic Disorder?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 (or DSM-5) describes Panic Disorder — in short — as a person experiencing recurrent unexpected panic attacks. It goes on to further describe a panic attack as an abrupt surge of intense fear and/or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes. An additional and self-perpetuating characteristic of Panic Disorder is the presence of persistent concern or worry about additional panic attacks or their consequences (e.g., losing control or “going crazy”).
The DSM-5 also discusses how maladaptive changes and behaviors can be present when having panic attacks and suffering from Panic Disorder.
Now that we have a more functioning working definition of what panic attacks are and how Panic Disorder forms, we can move on to deciphering what various factors contribute to them on a personal level.
Factors such as biological predispositions, family history, and a host of other circumstances may contribute to the development of anxious distress and panic attacks.
One prevalent factor that researchers have studied substantially is early stressful life events — particularly in childhood — and how they can cause alterations in the brain’s cognitive patterns and stress response.
Biological factors such as family responses to stress have also been researched on how they affect an individual’s response to stress and anxiety. For example, if a parent — let’s say a father — was prone to panic attacks or high levels of anxiety, and you grew up around that, it is reasonable to conclude that you yourself may also cognitively process anxiety in similar ways. After all, our families often set the blueprints for how we navigate life. That’s not to say that a family member’s anxiety is the reason you experience it or that your parents failed you — parents have a tough and noble job after all — it is simply to say that we often learn our coping patterns or stress responses from those around us in our formative years.
One final note: identifying when panic stems from recent or unexpected changes in one’s life is key to understanding how to effectively process the distress. Stressful events could include the loss of a job, a major move, life events such as weddings, an unexpected divorce or an unexpected death. All of these factors are potential triggers for a significant distressing episode because they bring confusion and uncertainty into our lives when humans typically operate off of a homeostatic state of existence.
Why do panic attacks seem so sudden and often unexpected?
Panic attacks often feel sudden and out of nowhere, typically making them more troublesome to deal with. This reaction can be simply explained: we often suppress distressing emotions thereby giving them space and the ability to build up and “explode” seemingly out of thin air. A myriad of factors contributes to this such as personality, type of stressor, and other underlying mental health factors; rest assured, you are NOT alone.
What can be done, and why are mental health services so beneficial?
So, what can be done to help with symptoms of Panic Disorder? Treatment via medication and therapy are key. While not meant to be a long-term solution, medication can be effective in helping break the cycle of panic attacks for many. You can talk to a psychiatrist with Prairie Health to discuss your specific situation and get treatment that’s tailored to your needs. For long-term support, therapy provides the necessary tools to process feelings of panic and distress. At places like Two Chairs, therapists provide coping skills and strategies (i.e., cognitive restructuring practices, deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation training, calming techniques) through various evidenced-based practices to help individuals gain higher-functioning and a higher quality of life.
No matter the cause of your panic attacks, you are not alone, and help can be found through both therapeutic and psychiatric services.