Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia

Some individuals experience sudden, unprovoked, and overwhelming episodes of fear and panic. These are called panic attacks, and involve a host of unpleasant symptoms, including, but not limited to: rapid heartbeat, sweating, trouble breathing, chest pain, stomach discomfort, muscle tensing, nausea, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, feelings of unreality, and fears of going crazy or dying.

The term, agoraphobia, refers to the fear of being in a particular situation or environment where escape would be difficult or embarrasing. For one person this might be an open space, such as a parking lot. Another might be more intimidated by a closed space, like a movie theater or crowded grocery store. Getting one’s hair cut or sitting in a dentist’s chair might also trigger the feeling of being “trapped,” and result in a panic attack.

Some individuals suffering from Panic Disorder do not leave their homes at all for fear of provoking a panic attack, while others feel more comfortable leaving home with a trusted friend or family member. Agoraphobia and panic attacks therefore go hand in hand; as the individual attempts to avoid more and more situations associated with panic attacks, their agoraphobic avoidance increases.

Understandably, given the alarming symptoms of panic attacks, many people seek medical attention or go to the emergency room for help. However, panic attacks are not dangerous. The symptoms are actually the body’s alarm system, or its response to danger, sounding at the wrong time.

Treatment for Panic Disorder involves learning skills to calm one’s body, such as breathing and muscle relaxation techniques. In addition, cognitive restructuring, a Cognitive-Behavioral skill which teaches people how to think about and process their own thoughts and experiences differently, is also reviewed. 

Finally, in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, people are taught how to slowly confront their fears that are triggered by their own body symptoms, as well as environmental situations which have been avoided.  Individuals learn to apply these skills when they begin to experience the symptoms of panic, and with practice, they are able to fix the body’s alarm system and keep it from going off incorrectly.

Anxiety Disorders