Having a panic attack is a terrifying and confounding experience. Panic attacks can materialize seemingly out of nowhere, leaving you feeling emotionally and physically exhausted.
When panic attacks occur regularly and affect your quality of life, it’s time to start thinking about solutions. Medication can help, but it’s also possible to treat the panic disorder without medication.
Read on to find out more about panic disorder treatment options.
What Is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is defined as a short but intense period of extreme discomfort and fear, characterized by very specific symptoms. These symptoms can cause more anxiety, fueling the panic attack further, especially when the person having the panic attack doesn’t know how or why these things are happening.
Although panic attacks tend to peak within just a few minutes before petering out, those who experience them often feel as though they last much longer.
Here are some common symptoms of panic attacks:
- Chest pain
- Racing heartbeat
- Shaking or trembling
- Shortness of breath
- Warmth, tingling or numbness, especially in legs and arms
- Depersonalization (feeling that you’re not real) and/or derealization (feeling that your surroundings aren’t real)
- Impending sense of doom
- Fear of losing control, “going crazy,” or dying
What Is a Panic Disorder?
From a clinical standpoint, a diagnosis of panic disorder is made when a patient presents with particular symptoms, such as:
- Having unexpected and recurring panic attacks
- Experiencing persistent fear about having another panic attack
- Changing behavior to try to avoid having more panic attacks
These symptoms result in a noticeable drop in quality of life and make it difficult to function from day to day.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
To understand panic disorder causes and how panic attacks happen, we need to consider the body’s basic defense mechanisms – namely, the fight or flight response, which causes a spike in adrenaline in response to a danger or threat.
In the right situation, the fight or flight response can be life-saving as the adrenaline is used to help the person defend themselves (“fight”) or escape from the situation (“flight”).
But the brain can sometimes misfire while deciding about situations, triggering this reaction at the wrong time even though the person is perfectly safe.
With no actual threat to combat, the high energy of adrenaline just bounces around the body, which causes the unusual and alarming symptoms associated with panic attacks.
Panic attacks can be triggered by particular places or feelings or can happen randomly. People with panic disorder might start to avoid places they’ve had panic attacks in the hope of stopping the attacks – yet by their very nature, panic attacks aren’t limited to one place, and they soon start to occur in new and unexpected places.
The constant appearance of panic attacks in new spaces can result in an ever-tightening diameter of “safe places,” until eventually, the home is the only place that feels even slightly safe – though, of course, panic attacks can happen here too. Being confined to the home is one of the most debilitating symptoms of panic disorder and can cause a major drop in quality of life.
How Can a Panic Disorder Be Treated?
In short, there are two main ways to treat a panic disorder: medication and therapy. Both have their pros and cons, and it’s important to consider all options carefully before deciding on a course of action. Experts in the field, like therapists and doctors, can help you decide on a panic disorder treatment plan.
Can You Cure a Panic Disorder Without Medication?
Sometimes, people feel like their options are limited to medication, but panic disorder treatment without medication is very much possible.
The decision whether or not to use medication to treat panic disorder or other anxiety disorders is a very personal one. Some people find medication to be a simple solution, and indeed, studies show that medication can be effective on its own, even without therapy.
That said, there are downsides to using medication – side effects and the cost of treatment being the two major aspects to consider.
Just as there are studies showing the effectiveness of medication in treating panic disorder, there are also studies that show that particular types of therapy have a high success rate.
It’s also been proven that a combination of medication and therapy can be a very effective treatment plan for panic disorder.
Is Therapy for Panic Disorder Effective?
The effectiveness of therapy for panic attacks and panic disorder has been shown time and again in academic studies, but some types of therapy work better than others.
The types of therapy that tend to have the most success in treating panic disorder are those that help the patient restructure the way they think and approach panic attacks.
What Are the Therapy Options for Panic Disorder?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Much of CBT’s success in treating panic disorder can be attributed to its practical and systematic approach. CBT can also be personalized for different types of people fairly easily.
Here are some of the main aspects of CBT:
- Gradual, controlled, and safe exposure to feared or triggering situations (for example, leaving the house or being on public transport)
- Providing information about how and why panic attacks happen, encouraging reframing and re-interpretation of panic attack symptoms
- Teaching self-help strategies that can be used outside of therapy
Panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (PFPP)
Psychodynamic therapy is based on the theory that psychological problems such as anxiety and depression originate from inner conflict.
PFPP uses classical psychodynamic methods such as confrontation, clarification, and interpretation to guide a person to come to terms with the inner conflict at the center of panic disorder.
Other Ways to Control a Panic Disorder
General mental-health wellness principles can be applied to panic disorder. The link between the wellness of mind and wellness of body can be a great help in getting panic attacks under control.
Use breathing techniques
Mindfulness can play an important role in easing anxiety. Breathing and grounding exercises are particularly useful.
Try breathing in through your nose for five counts, holding your breath for five counts, and breathing out through your mouth for five counts. Repeat this cycle several times, concentrating on the sensation of the air entering and leaving your chest. This can help with the tight chest that often accompanies anxiety and panic attacks.
With plenty of meditation apps and advice available online, learning to meditate has never been more accessible. Meditation is an excellent way to practice mindfulness and be in the moment.
Get enough exercise
There’s a good reason that a healthy body is linked to a healthy mind – exercise is not only stress-relieving, but it’s also a mood booster. Exercise may not seem appealing when you’re going through a rough patch of anxiety, but taking small steps towards increasing physical activity and finding a type of exercise that you enjoy can go a long way towards recovery.
Maintain a consistent sleep schedule
Sleeping too much or too little can worsen anxiety, and having panic disorder might make you more sensitive to sleep deprivation. Having a set routine before going to bed will not only result in better and more refreshing sleep but can also be a great opportunity to practice self-care while winding down. Having a lavender bubble bath, drinking a cup of chamomile tea, and reading a good book are all relaxing activities that can improve sleep.
Overcome Panic Disorder With Therapy
Going to therapy for the first time can be a challenging milestone to meet, especially if you’re sensitive to going to new places and meeting new people.
Online counseling is in many ways the ideal form of therapy for panic disorder – it allows you to see a therapist from home in a comfortable and familiar environment. Being able to reach your therapist via chat when you’re having a panic attack is also a major plus of online therapy.
Getting started with online therapy for panic disorder is a simple process that can make a world of difference.