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We all have anxiety from time to time. But panic attacks are so sudden and intense that they greatly affect our daily lives and cause us to avoid potentially-triggering situations. If these occur regularly, it is time to seek help.

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is a form of anxiety disorder characterised by sudden and recurrent attacks of intense fear or discomfort. These attacks, also known as panic attacks, can occur unexpectedly and for no apparent reason.

Symptoms of panic attacks

The symptoms of panic attacks can vary, but often include:

  • Heart palpitations or rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling of suffocation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Dizziness, unsteadiness, or feeling of fainting
  • Heat or cold waves
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Fear of losing control or ‘going crazy’

These symptoms are often so intense that they create a strong fear of future attacks, which can lead to avoidance behaviours.

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Causes of panic disorder

The causes of panic disorder can be many and include genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors. Stress, especially prolonged stress, is often a significant trigger. Other risk factors may include:

  • Family history of panic disorder or other anxiety disorders
  • Significant life changes or stressful events
  • Previous psychological trauma or PTSD
  • Tendency to be more sensitive to stress or negative emotions
  • Certain medical conditions or medications

Treatment of panic disorder

Treatment for panic disorder can involve a combination of therapy, medication and self-help strategies. The most effective forms of treatment are:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT is one of the most effective therapies for panic disorder. It focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to panic disorder.
  • Medication: Medications such as antidepressants and anxiolytics can be helpful in controlling the symptoms of panic disorder.
  • Lifestyle changes: Regular exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and avoidance of alcohol and caffeine can help reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
  • Breathing techniques and relaxation exercises: These techniques can help manage the physical symptoms of panic disorder during an attack.

Living with panic disorder

Living with panic disorder can be challenging but with the right tools and support it is possible to manage the symptoms and improve your quality of life. Here are some tips:

  • Understand your condition: learn as much as possible about panic disorder and its treatments.
  • Seek professional help: Contact a psychologist or other mental health specialist who can offer advice and treatment.
  • Create a support group: Talk to family and friends about your experience and ask for their understanding and support.
  • Practice self-care: Prioritise your physical and emotional health by making time for relaxation and activities you enjoy.

Panic disorder can be a challenging experience, but help is available and many people have successfully learned to manage and overcome their symptoms. Remember that you are not alone and Lavendla’s therapists are available to support you on your path to recovery.

Managing panic disorder: practical tips and strategies

Managing panic disorder in everyday life requires both understanding and patience. It is important to remember that each person’s experience is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Here are some practical tips and strategies that can help you deal with panic disorder:

1. Identify triggers

Learn to recognise the situations, thoughts or feelings that trigger your panic attacks. An understanding of these triggers can help you prepare and deal with an attack more effectively.

2. Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques

  • Practice deep breathing or mindfulness techniques which help reduce tension and stress.
  • Use relaxation exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation to reduce physical anxiety.

3. Self-help strategies

  • Keep a diary to document your thoughts and feelings. This can provide insights into patterns and help you work through your feelings.
  • Use positive self-talk and affirmations to combat negative thoughts and increase self-confidence.

4. Healthy lifestyle

  • Exercise regularly to reduce stress and improve your overall health.
  • Eat a balanced diet and make sure you get enough sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and other substances that can exacerbate anxiety.

5. Seek support

  • Talk openly with friends and family about your experiences and feelings.
  • Join a support group where you can share experiences and get advice from others with similar experiences.

6. Professional help

  • Consider seeing a psychologist or therapist regularly to help you develop effective coping strategies.
  • Follow any medical treatment prescribed by your doctor.

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Challenges and solutions

  • Negative self-criticism: Turn self-criticism into constructive self-reflection. Ask yourself, ‘Is this really true? and ‘How can I improve?’
  • Comparison with others: Remember that everyone has their own journey. Focus on your personal development instead of comparing yourself to others.

When panic disorder affects your work

Panic disorder can have a significant impact on your work ability and performance. It is important to find ways to manage your anxiety in the workplace:

  • Create a calm and comfortable working environment.
  • Take regular breaks to avoid overwhelming stress.
  • If possible, discuss your situation with your employer or HR department to explore possible accommodations that can support you.

Understanding and accepting

Understanding and accepting that you have panic disorder is an important step in your recovery process. Acknowledging and accepting your condition can help you become more aware of your needs and how best to take care of yourself.

Remember that recovery from panic disorder is a process and can take time. Be patient with yourself and acknowledge any progress you make. You are not alone, Lavendla’s therapists are ready to help you navigate through this challenge when you are.

Creating a long-term panic disorder management plan

Managing panic disorder is not just a matter of mastering short-term techniques; it is also about developing a long-term plan to manage and reduce its impact on your life. Here are some steps you can take to create such a plan:

1. Regular follow-ups with health professionals

  • Ensure regular meetings with your doctor or therapist to monitor your progress and adjust the treatment plan if necessary.
  • Be open to trying new treatment methods or forms of therapy that may be more effective for you.

2. Develop a crisis plan

  • Have a plan in place for dealing with a panic attack, no matter where you are.
  • Inform loved ones and colleagues about what they can do to help you if you have a panic attack.

3. Prevention strategies

  • Work actively to reduce stress in your life through time management, relaxation techniques and saying no to too many commitments.
  • Develop a healthy routine that includes exercise, relaxation and hobbies.

4. Continuous learning and self-development

  • Continue to learn about panic disorder and how it affects you.
  • Attend workshops, courses or online seminars to expand your understanding and skills in managing anxiety.

5. Building a supportive network

  • Maintain and develop relationships with people who understand and support your journey.
  • Consider joining self-help groups or online forums where you can share experiences and lessons learned with others suffering from similar challenges.

Integrating routines into your daily life

Create small daily routines to help you manage your anxiety, such as doing breathing exercises every morning. Pay attention to your mental health and make adjustments to your lifestyle when necessary.

Measuring your progress

Set realistic goals for your recovery and celebrate the small successes. Reflecting regularly on how you have dealt with challenges and what you have learned can help you recognise progress more clearly. Dealing with panic disorder is a personal journey, what works for one person may not work for another. Be kind to yourself and remember that every small step you take is a step forward on your journey to wellness.

Living with, and overcoming, panic disorder

Dealing with panic disorder can be a lifelong journey but it’s important to keep a future perspective. Looking forward and planning for the future can be a powerful part of the recovery process. Here are some ways to build a positive future while dealing with panic disorder:

1. Set long-term goals

  • Think about what you want to achieve in your life, whether it’s in your career, personal relationships or hobbies.
  • Set realistic, long-term goals that motivate you and give your life direction.

2. Adjust your expectations

  • Be realistic about what you can achieve and allow yourself to adjust your expectations and goals when necessary.
  • Understand that it is okay to have days when you are not at your best and that recovery often means two steps forward and one step back.

3. Encourage personal development

  • Engage in activities that promote personal growth, such as learning new skills or participating in training programmes.
  • See your management of panic disorder as part of your personal development journey.

4. Building and maintaining relationships

  • Continue to cultivate strong relationships with family, friends and colleagues.
  • Be open with your loved ones about your journey and let them know how they can support you.

5. Focus on health and well-being

  • Prioritise your physical and mental health through a balanced diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep.
  • Practice regular self-care to keep stress and anxiety at a manageable level.

6. Consider lifelong learning

  • Continue to learn about panic disorder and related health conditions.
  • Be open to new treatments and research that may offer additional support.

Living with panic disorder does not mean that your life is limited. With the right support, strategies and a willingness to learn and grow, you can live a full and meaningful life. However, it is important to remember that each person’s journey is unique and what is most important is that you continue to move forward at your own pace.

Creating a sustainable future despite panic disorder

Adjusting to life with panic disorder requires not only understanding and managing the condition but also building a sustainable future where you feel capable and hopeful. Here are some steps to create such a future:

1. Staying committed to treatment

  • Continue to attend therapy or counselling even when you feel better to maintain your progress and prevent relapse.
  • Be open to adjusting your treatment plan as needed, with the help of your healthcare provider.

2. Building resilience

  • Learn techniques to build emotional resilience, such as dealing with disappointments and challenges in a healthy way.
  • Practice gratitude and positive thinking to build a more optimistic outlook on life.

3. Navigating the world of work

  • Look for work or career opportunities that are meaningful and do not overload you.
  • Discuss possible workplace accommodations that can help you manage your anxiety, such as flexible working hours or the possibility of working from home.

4. Setting personal boundaries

  • Learn to say no to commitments that are stressful or overwhelming.
  • Set clear boundaries in your relationships to protect your time and energy.

5. Participating in the community

  • Get involved in volunteer or community activities, which can provide a sense of purpose and belonging.
  • Share your experiences with others to raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental health.

6. Planning for the future

  • Set both short- and long-term goals for your personal and professional development.
  • Plan for the future, but also be flexible and prepared to adapt your plans as circumstances change.

Managing panic disorder is an ongoing process, but it doesn’t have to define your life. With the right attitude and support, you can create a bright and sustainable future. Step-by-step you can building a path towards a more stable and satisfying existence.

Understanding and managing panic disorder

In this in-depth section, we go deeper into the understanding and management of panic disorder. We will explore the underlying mechanisms, advanced management techniques and how to build a stronger foundation for long-term management and recovery.

Understanding the underlying mechanisms

Biological factors: Research shows that certain parts of the brain, including the amygdala, play a role in how we experience anxiety. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are also involved.

Psychological factors: Learn how thought patterns and cognitive distortions can contribute to, and reinforce, panic disorder.

Social and environmental factors: Understand how stressors in your environment, such as work pressure or personal relationships, can affect your anxiety.

Advanced management techniques

Exposure therapy: This form of therapy involves gradual and controlled exposure to the situations or objects that trigger your anxiety, to reduce fear and avoidance behaviors.

Mindfulness and mindfulness: Deepen your knowledge of mindfulness and how it can be used to manage panic disorder by practicing being present in the moment and accepting your feelings without judging them.

Advanced breathing techniques: Beyond basic breathing exercises, explore more advanced techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing or yoga breathing to regulate your nervous system.

Building a stronger foundation for long-term management

Personal development and self-awareness: Focus on your personal development and increase your self-awareness. Understand how your personality and life experiences affect your management of anxiety.

Creating and maintaining routines: Build daily and weekly routines that promote mental health, such as regular physical activity, healthy eating and relaxation.

Long-term stress management strategies: Develop long-term strategies to manage stress, including time management, setting realistic expectations for yourself and seeking support when needed.

A deeper understanding and management of panic disorder involves a holistic approach that includes both physical and mental health, as well as a deeper understanding of the personal and environmental factors that contribute to the anxiety. Remember that every step on this journey is valuable and contributes to a stronger and more resilient future.

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20 common questions and answers about panic disorder

What are the symptoms of panic disorder?

Panic disorder is characterised by sudden and intense feelings of fear or anxiety. Common symptoms include heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, difficulty breathing, chest pain, nausea and a feeling of losing control or fear of dying. The symptoms can come unexpectedly and often for no apparent reason, creating a palpable fear of further attacks.

What can be done about panic disorder?

There are effective treatments for panic disorder, including psychotherapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and in some cases medication. Self-help techniques such as deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques can also be helpful. It is important to seek professional help for an individualised treatment plan. Following a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise and a balanced diet, can also help reduce symptoms.

What is the difference between panic disorder and anxiety?

Anxiety is a broader term that describes a feeling of worry, fear or nervousness, and can be a normal reaction to stress. Panic disorder, on the other hand, refers to specific episodes of intense fear or panic. Anxiety can be prolonged and constant, while panic disorder usually occurs in sudden attacks. Treatments differ between the two conditions.

What is the difference between panic attack and panic disorder?

A panic attack is an intense wave of fear or anxiety that culminates within minutes and includes various symptoms such as heart palpitations and difficulty breathing. Panic disorder refers to recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, often accompanied by a constant worry about future attacks and changes in behaviour to avoid situations that might trigger them.

How long does a panic attack usually last?

A panic attack usually lasts between 5 and 20 minutes, but symptoms can feel intense and overwhelming during this time. Some people may experience prolonged or consecutive attacks, which can make it feel like the attack is lasting longer.

Can panic disorder lead to other health problems?

Yes, if left untreated, panic disorder can lead to other health problems such as depression, other anxiety disorders, or avoidant behaviour that can limit a person’s daily functioning and quality of life. It is therefore important to seek professional help if you experience symptoms of panic disorder.

Is panic disorder hereditary?

Research shows that panic disorder may have a genetic component, meaning that there may be an increased risk if a close relative has the condition. However, environmental factors and personal experiences also play an important role in the development of panic disorder.

Can children and young people get panic disorder?

Yes, children and adolescents can also suffer from panic disorder. Symptoms can be similar to those of adults, but younger people may find it more difficult to express their feelings. It is important to look out for signs of anxiety in children and young people and seek professional help if necessary.

Are there any lifestyle changes that can help with panic disorder?

Yes, some lifestyle changes can help reduce the symptoms of panic disorder. These include regular exercise, a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and practicing stress management techniques such as meditation and yoga. It is also important to maintain a work-life balance.

Can exercise and training help reduce panic disorder?

Yes, regular physical activity has been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of panic disorder. Exercise releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural mood enhancers, and can help reduce stress levels. Light to moderate exercises such as walking, jogging, yoga and swimming are often recommended.

How can I help someone experiencing a panic attack?

If someone is experiencing a panic attack, be calm and supportive. Encourage the person to breathe slowly and deeply, which can help reduce symptoms. Listen without judgment and offer a calm and safe space. Avoid downplaying their feelings and encourage them to seek professional help.

Do diet and nutrition affect panic attacks?

Although diet and nutrition do not directly cure panic disorder, a balanced diet can help to better manage the symptoms. Eating regularly to keep blood sugar levels stable and avoiding large amounts of caffeine and sugar can help prevent panic attacks.

Can panic disorder be completely cured?

Panic disorder is a treatable condition. Many people experience great relief from their symptoms through treatment, such as therapy and sometimes medication. While there may not be a cure in the traditional sense, people can learn to effectively manage and reduce their symptoms.

What role do relaxation techniques play in the management of panic disorder?

Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and mindfulness can be very effective in managing panic disorder. These practices help to calm the mind and body, which can reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

What type of psychotherapy is recommended for panic disorder?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of psychotherapy for the treatment of panic disorder. CBT focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to panic attacks. It helps individuals develop strategies to manage and reduce the frequency of panic attacks.

Can relaxation exercises prevent panic attacks?

Yes, regular relaxation exercises can help prevent panic attacks by reducing overall stress and anxiety levels. Techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can be particularly useful in maintaining a calm and relaxed state of mind.

Is it common to relive panic attacks after treatment?

It is not uncommon to experience recurrent periods of panic disorder even after successful treatment. Relapses can be managed by continued use of the strategies taught in therapy, and if necessary, by further sessions with a therapist. It is important not to see this as a failure but as part of the ongoing management process.

Can lifestyle changes replace the need for therapy or medication?

While lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, healthy eating and stress management can help reduce symptoms of panic disorder, they should not be seen as a substitute for professional therapy or medication. These are complementary strategies that can improve the overall effectiveness of treatment.

Are there natural remedies or supplements that can help with panic disorder?

Some natural remedies and supplements, such as chamomile, omega-3 fatty acids, and magnesium can have calming effects and potentially help manage mild anxiety. However, it is important to consult a doctor before starting any supplements, especially if you are already taking other medications.

Does sleep quality affect the risk of panic disorder?

Yes, sleep quality can have a major impact on the risk of panic attacks. Insufficient or disrupted sleep can increase sensitivity to stress and anxiety, which can lead to or worsen panic attacks. Maintaining good sleep habits is therefore an important part of panic disorder management.

Can alcohol and drugs affect panic disorder?

Alcohol and drugs can have a negative impact on panic disorder. While some people may use these substances to self-medicate, they can actually increase the frequency and intensity of panic attacks in the long term and even lead to addiction and other health problems.

Is panic disorder more common in women than men?

Studies have shown that panic attacks are more common in women than men. This may be partly due to biological, hormonal and psychosocial factors. It is important that both genders seek and access appropriate treatment to manage their condition.

Can panic disorder be confused with other health conditions?

Yes, panic disorder can sometimes be confused with other health conditions, especially heart-related problems, as some symptoms such as chest pain and palpitations are common. It is important to get a thorough medical evaluation to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms.

Can dietary changes have an impact on panic disorder?

Yes, dietary changes can affect panic disorder. A well-balanced diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium and B vitamins can help reduce anxiety levels. Avoiding high amounts of caffeine and sugar can also be beneficial, as these can trigger or worsen panic disorder symptoms.

How can I distinguish between a panic attack and a heart problem?

The symptoms of a panic attack and some heart problems can be similar. However, a panic attack is often characterised by a sudden onset of intense fear or anxiety with symptoms such as palpitations, sweating and trembling, while heart problems may have more constant and physical symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath. It is important to seek medical assessment for proper diagnosis.

Does alcohol affect panic attacks?

Alcohol can temporarily reduce anxiety, but regular or heavy drinking can increase the risk of panic attacks and worsen panic disorder over time. Alcohol affects the central nervous system and can lead to increased anxiety levels as the effect wears off.

Can regular meditation help with panic attacks?

Yes, regular meditation can be an effective method of reducing the symptoms of panic disorder. Meditation helps to promote relaxation and stress management, which can reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

What role do family and friends play in the management of panic disorder?

Support from family and friends is crucial to the management of panic disorder. They can offer emotional support, encourage seeking and continuing treatment, and help create an understanding and supportive environment. Having a strong support group can make a big difference in the recovery process.

How can deep breathing exercises help during a panic attack?

Deep breathing exercises can be very effective during a panic attack. They help control hyperventilation – a common reaction during a panic attack – and promote a sense of calm. By focusing on slow, deep breaths in and out, you can reduce the intensity of symptoms such as heart palpitations and tremors.

Can panic disorder lead to phobias?

Yes, in some cases panic attacks can lead to the development of specific phobias, particularly agoraphobia. This occurs when a person starts to avoid places or situations where they previously had panic attacks, for fear of it happening again.

Are there specific triggers for panic attacks?

Triggers for panic attacks can vary widely from person to person. Some common triggers include stress, fatigue, caffeine or certain medications. It is important for each individual to identify their own triggers in order to manage and prevent future attacks.

Can panic disorder get worse with age?

There is no hard and fast rule about how panic disorder develops over time. For some, symptoms may remain constant, while others may experience an improvement or worsening. However, treatment and management techniques can help improve symptoms regardless of age.

How common is it to recover fully from panic disorder?

Many people experience a significant improvement in their symptoms and can return to their normal activities with the right treatment and support. Although full recovery may vary, effective management of panic disorder can lead to a high quality of life and reduced impact of the anxiety on daily life.

Steps towards managing panic disorder

Panic disorder is a sudden wave of intense worry and fear. Symptoms can be overwhelming and include heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, and a sense of impending disaster. This mental health challenge can feel lonely and scary, but it is important to remember that you are not alone. Treatment is available and the first step towards recovery is to understand what panic disorder is and how it can be managed.

Treatment for panic disorder usually involves a combination of therapy and sometimes medication. The aim is to reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks and to increase your understanding and management of them.

Step 1: Seek professional help

The first and perhaps most important step is to recognise the need for help. Getting in touch with a psychologist or therapist through Lavendla can be a brave first step. A therapist or psychologist can give you tools and support to manage your panic disorder.

Step 2: Therapeutic treatments

After diagnosis, your healthcare provider may recommend different treatment methods:

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): Helps identify and change negative thought patterns that contribute to panic attacks.

Exposure therapy: Exposure to the situations that trigger your anxiety in a controlled environment.

Relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga can be effective in reducing symptoms.

Step 3: Medical treatment

In some cases, medication may be necessary to manage the symptoms of panic disorder. This may include antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication.

Step 4: Self-help and support groups

Self-help strategies: Diary writing and self-awareness can help you understand and manage your triggers.

Support groups: Sharing experiences with other panic disorder sufferers can be very supportive.

Step 5: Lifestyle changes

Healthy habits such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, and good sleep hygiene can help reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

We make the difficult easier by offering support and guidance through each step in the management of panic disorder. The first step is often the hardest, but with the right support and treatment there is a way forward to a calmer and more controlled life. Visit Lavendla’s site to start managing your panic disorder today.

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Written by dominic

Dominic is a Cape Town-based copywriter and editor with a background in psychology.