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The Road To Fort Worth

Read » Chapter 8: Danville


Understanding Panic Disorder


A panic attack can strike anyone at any time. Most people never experience an attack, and others may have only one or two over the course of a lifetime. Someone who has a series of attacks can be diagnosed with panic disorder, a debilitating illness that can lead to a decreased ability to function in the everyday world. Untreated panic disorder can lead to agoraphobia, an extreme fear of open places and crowds. Panic disorder and agoraphobia appear to be more common among women, but men experience panic attacks and agoraphobia as well. The phrase panic attack (anxiety attack) has become a part of our vocabulary and is used to describe an uncomfortable experience, unrelated to the unbridled terror of a panic attack. You may wonder, then, what a panic attack is.

Fear is an emotional response to danger. It is an innate survival mechanism that alerts the mind to take immediate action in the face of a specific stimulus. Physiological changes occur instantly to prepare the body to either fight or to escape from the perceived threat.

If a tiger is springing from his rear haunches toward you, the fear response will instantly provide you with the energy that you need to grab your rifle and shoot him, or to climb a tree faster than a monkey to the safety of the high branches. After the danger has passed, your body and mind return to their former state of equilibrium.

During a panic attack, the same fear mechanism that protects one from danger is evoked spontaneously. Physiological changes occur: the flow of adrenalin increases; the heart beats faster to pump blood to the muscles; and certain systems, like digestion, shut down to focus all of the body's energy to fight or to run. However, there is nothing to fight or any danger in the environment at all. The stimulus is not a tiger, but rather the spontaneous fear response itself. Essentially, a panic attack is a physiological response to a physiological response causing fear to spiral into panic.

After the attack has run its course, there isn't the same sense of relief that one feels perched high in a treetop or standing over a lifeless tiger with a rifle in hand. There is the tendency to brood over the event because it's not in the realm of human experience to be terrified for no reason. People have said that having a panic attack is the most horrifying experience of a lifetime. It is so upsetting that repeated attacks result in the development of a secondary fear of having another attack. The intense distress of experiencing reoccurring panic attacks, over a prolonged period of time, will demand that one take action to escape the cycle of fear, to find some source of relief.

The relief could be restricting one's activities by staying away from the places that seem to induce panic attacks. Eventually, a person's comfort zone could become so limited that he becomes housebound. Others seek relief in drugs or alcohol. Various holistic approaches such as relaxation/visualization techniques can be used as a part of an effective therapy program. However, in moderate to severe cases of panic disorder, engaging the services of a licensed psychotherapist is the best line of defense.

A good place to start in finding a therapist is by contacting your local mental health clinic or by consulting with your family doctor. The best therapeutic technique for treating panic disorder is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which focuses on the role our thinking has on our emotional responses. The therapy teaches techniques for changing our thoughts and perceptions, thereby changing our reactions to extreme anxiety. It will utilize various methods, like progressive relaxation and visualization/guided imagery, biofeedback techniques and desensitization to phobic situations. And the resulting change in response is measurable using fMRI technology. There is empirical evidence that the escalating nature of a panic attack is caused by an overstimulation of areas in the limbic system of the brain, and a resulting misinterpretation of the signals that the system sends to the prefrontal cortex for processing. It's also been demonstrated that an individual can learn how to change those terrifying misinterpretations into more appropriate and calming thoughts.

If you are experiencing panic attacks, don't delay in talking to a qualified therapist. The more quickly you begin therapy, the less severe your panic disorder will become.

Copyright ©2012 Michael Jackson Smith


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