Panic Disorder Treatment: An Overview
The treatment of panic disorder is usually approached very differently from the way it probably should be in that the first line of treatment is almost always to “throw a medication at it”. When given the fact that the medications usually used for panic disorder treatment have serious side effects, a more reasonable approach would probably be to consider possible psychological interventions prior to using medications that have serious side effects. These medications may be necessary in place of psychological interventions or in addition to, but they should not always be the first line of defense in the treatment of panic disorder. In fact, efficacy studies related to the treatment of panic disorder with cognitive behavioral therapy, have found that it performs as well as pharmacological interventions in the short-term and may possibly be more durable in the long-term.
Panic Disorder Treatment: The Psychological Approach
The core feature in the treatment of panic disorder from a psychological treatment perspective, is that panic disorder is frequently caused by and maintained by heightened fears associated with anxiety symptoms. The main psychological treatment modality in current practice by psychologists and other mental health practitioners is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which seeks to reduce those fears. The belief which has also been confirmed by research is that it is this “fear of fear” that is the main culprit and the focus of intervention. This fear can be reduced, resulting in the clinical improvement of panic disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapists utilize various cognitive techniques including psychoeducation about panic along with cognitive restructuring, as well as behavioral methods such as interoceptive exposure to assist in the reduction of the symptoms of panic disorder.
Psychoeducation for Panic Disorder:
Psychotherapists using the cognitive behavioral method, usually first begin by providing patients with information about panic disorder. Information and education about panic and how it is maintained is seen as the most basic aspect of this program, allowing the patient and therapist to collaborate on future treatment and intervention. It has been found that there is an enormous amount of misinformation about panic symptoms as well as how they will affect the individual patient. Many patients present to emergency rooms mistaking intercoastal muscle tension in the chest as an indication that they are having a heart attack. Cardiac arrest is much more than pain in the chest. It most often involves a crushing pain in the chest usually accompanied by pain shooting downward through the arm. Also, many patients mistake hyperventilation-related dizzy feelings for fainting, without realizing that ultimately dizziness may be the result of blood pressure and the heart rate suddenly dropping. In actuality, an elevated heart rate during panic will actually protect against fainting in spite of dizziness.
There are certain physiological reactions that protect us from various threats including what has been referred to as the “fight or flight” reaction to stress or danger. The “fight or flight” syndrome is actually believed to help protect us against danger but is not in itself threatening or dangerous. It is a heightened level of physiological arousal that allows us to respond to threatening or dangerous circumstances, but does not specifically pose a threat to our well-being.
Some patients also fear that the physiological symptoms of panic disorder will lead them to more serious mental health concerns. These additional mental health worries also exacerbate the underlying mistaken beliefs that bodily sensations and a fearful response to dizziness and heart palpitations for example, will lead to a full-blown panic attack or result in some other type of mental illness.
Panic Disorder Treatment and Basic Beliefs:
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on catastrophic beliefs and misconceptions about our bodily sensations and the prevention of testing these misconceptions and refuting these beliefs. In order to assist with alleviating these catastrophizing beliefs, the therapist may ask the patient what has kept them from experiencing the actual catastrophe that they had envisioned. In most circumstances, patients will indicate that they have taken various safety measures to short-circuit the catastrophe from actually occurring. For example, a patient may state that they are afraid that the panic disorder related dizziness will result in them becoming weak and falling down. The therapist may then ask what has kept them from falling down in the past? The patient will usually state that they were able to sit down prior to falling down. They were able to rely upon these safety measures to keep the catastrophe from actually occurring. So, in effect, specific catastrophic thinking can be addressed along with safety measures that maintain the related fears that seem to drive the panic process.
Panic Disorder Treatment: Using Cognitive Restructuring
Another important aspect of panic disorder treatment using the cognitive behavioral approach involves using the cognitive restructuring of catastrophic beliefs. An important part of cognitive restructuring of these beliefs is that behavioral experiments are also used along with psychoeducation to alleviate the panic symptoms. The behavioral experiments are used to provide direct, experimental evidence that catastrophic consequences are not the inevitable result of catastrophic thoughts and the experience of heightened physiological sensations. A behavioral experiment may involve something as simple as when an individual believes that they will faint when dizzy and immediately sits down to avoid falling down. The behavioral experiment might involve having the patient hyperventilate while sitting down and experiencing the related sensations of dizziness and lightheadedness. The patient’s catastrophic thinking might involve the thought that they will faint if they stand up. The therapist may then encourage the alternative prediction that only a slight sense of unsteadiness will actually occur. Having the patient experience the physical sensations without having them engage in the customary safety behavior is one of the most powerful ways to help an individual change the catastrophic thinking that maintains the panic disorder. The goal of the therapist is to have the patient experience behavioral experiments that allow them to refute the beliefs associated with the usual bodily symptoms. Cognitive restructuring is actually a combination of psychoeducation and the creation of behavioral experiments that allow the individual to refute the catastrophic beliefs.
Panic Disorder Treatment: Exposure
Panic disorder is experienced pretty much in the same way that individuals experience phobias. After an individual experiences a high level of anxiety in relation to a certain stimuli they may then attempt to avoid similar experiences. Prolonged exposure to stimuli that is feared causing an extinction of the fear is an important feature of the behavioral treatments associated with anxiety and panic disorders. In individuals with panic disorder, the principle of exposure requires people to expose themselves to the stimuli that they fear and feel the related bodily sensations until they no longer hold the same capacity to provoke fear and discomfort.
Deep Breathing and Additional Treatments for panic disorder:
Some additional panic disorder treatments include applied muscle relaxation and breathing retraining, which is oriented toward counteracting hyperventilation. However, some therapists now wonder if these techniques are such a good idea. These methods were originally designed to help reduce the intensity of the bodily sensations which by implication were bad, which is contrary to the psychoeducational component in which these sensations are essentially taught to be considered harmless. However, teaching the concept that anxiety management techniques are a means of helping an individual to feel some sense of control over their bodies may indeed have some value.
Panic Disorder Treatment and Agoraphobia:
An intense fear of certain circumstances and objects can cause patients to avoid those experiences. This residual agoraphobia can continue even after panic has been successfully treated using cognitive behavioral techniques. Psychologists and mental health clinicians will frequently develop in vivo (real-life) exposure situations where individuals will purposefully enter into feared experiences and circumstances without avoiding the stimuli until the intense discomfort is reduced or goes away.
Some final words on panic disorder treatment:
There have been many studies over time that have identified the efficacy of psychological approaches to the management of panic disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy delivered on an individual basis or in a group setting has been found to significantly reduce symptoms of panic. Some studies have found as many as 74 4% of cognitive behavioral therapy treated patients are panic free posttreatment. Similar outcomes have also occurred in community mental health settings. Also, cognitive behavioral therapy has significantly outperformed other interventions including the use of some medications such as imipramine, applied relaxation and emotion focused therapy. Finally, panic disorder treatment using psychological methods including cognitive behavioral therapy with or without medication have frequently been found to be the best long-term solution to the treatment of panic disorder.
Some information adapted by Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist from Practitioner’s Guide to Evidenced-Based Psychotherapy by Jane E. Fisher and William T. O’Donohue
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