People with panic disorder have sudden attacks of fear and anxiety that last for several minutes, and typically peak within 10 minutes. Panic attacks are characterized by intense fear of disaster or of losing control, even when there is no identifiable danger. People often experience physical sensations during a panic attack, such as feeling dizzy or like you are suffocating or having a heart attack. Many people with panic disorder worry about the possibility of having another attack. While about 50% of people have 1-2 panic attacks in their lifetime, seeking therapy may be advisable if this is a recurrent pattern that is interfering with your life.
In terms of the technical definition of a panic attack, it is defined as a distinct period of intense fear or discomfort, peaking within 10 minutes, in which 4 or more of the following symptoms develop:
• Rapid heart rate, pounding heart or palpitations
• Sensations of shortness of breath, or smothering
• Feeling of choking
• Chest pain or discomfort
• Nausea or abdominal distress
• Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
• Feelings of unreality
• Feeling as if detached from one’s self
• Numbness or tingling sensations
• Chills or hot flashes
• Fear of losing control or going crazy
• Fear of dying
A condition that often develops as a result of panic disorder is agoraphobia, which is the fear of being stuck or trapped in places where escape or getting help are difficult. Agoraphobia often involves fear of crowds, bridges, or being outside alone. You may feel the need to be near an exit or avoid situations where you might do something embarrassing and not be able to escape.
Therapy for panic and agoraphobia
Panic disorder with or without agoraphobia is highly treatable with CBT and is typically a relatively brief treatment. Treatment involves interoceptive exposure (learning to tolerate one’s own bodily sensations) and in vivo exposure (confronting feared situations in a supported manner), as well as alleviating catastrophic interpretations about what’s happening to you.
If you are interested in finding out more about Dr. Jocelyn Sze’s panic therapy services in San Francisco, please click here to schedule an appointment or free phone consultation.