What is panic disorder, where do panic attacks come from, and what are some of the common myths surrounding panic disorder? Learn all this and more.
At its best, anxiety and stress are evolutionary adaptations that help us survive, priming us in dangerous situations to be ready for flight or fight. But today, where the odds of encountering a life-threatening situation during your day-to-day are relatively low, many of us still find ourselves dealing with overgrown anxiety responses like panic disorder.
What is Panic Disorder?
Panic disorder belongs to the family of anxiety disorders and is characterized by recurring and often unexpected panic attacks.
Panic attacks last anywhere from 15 seconds to 30 minutes, and feature terrifying symptoms like rapid heart rate, shallow and rapid breathing, chest pain, sweating, trembling, dizziness, numbness in extremities, and feelings of extreme terror.
What makes it so disorienting for the estimated six million adults with panic disorder is the fact that these symptoms can set in anytime, anywhere – sometimes with a triggering event, sometimes completely at random.
But when it comes to understanding panic disorder, misinformation and stigmas have led to inaccurate and often harmful myths.
Myth #1 – Panic Attacks only Happen to People who are “Lazy,” “Weak,” or “Fragile.”
This couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re still working to understand the roots of panic disorder, but researchers seem to agree the culprit is likely a combination of genetics, environment, and negative life experiences.
Panic attacks are not the result of people who “just don’t want to do the work” or “choose” having panic attacks to play the victim. This is an entirely incorrect and incredibly damaging narrative. Panic disorder is a very real illness, and people with the disorder often experience panic attacks completely out of the blue and unrelated to their lives. Panic attacks are entirely out of the individual’s control and result in intense physical symptoms that can mimic severe life-threatening conditions. They are not the result of “character defects” or attention-seeking behaviour.
Myth #2 – You Lose All Control During Panic Attacks
Aside from the intensity of symptoms, the lack of control over when and why panic attacks occur can make individuals feel their life is out of their hands. From dizziness to a racing heart to shallow breathing – panic attacks can make people feel like they’re on the verge of passing out or dying. However, this doesn’t mean people experiencing panic attacks “lose all control.”
One of the best tools to work through panic attacks is practicing awareness. While we may not be able to control when or why a panic attack happens, being able to identify symptoms can help you remain calm and reflective instead of leaning into the fear and worsening them.
Myth #3 – Panic Attacks are an Overreaction to Chronic Stress or Anxiety
While stress and anxiety can lead to panic attacks, calling panic attacks an “overreaction” suggests it’s within the control of those with panic disorder to react appropriately. But for those with panic disorder, this isn’t an overreaction – the feelings of terror are very real and occur without permission or direction. Additionally, panic attacks can occur without associated stress, happening at any point for seemingly no reason.
Myth #4 – Panic Attacks are Life-Threatening
Because the physical symptoms of panic attacks are so intense, many experiencing panic attacks believe they’re experiencing life-threatening symptoms. Symptoms often mimic heart attacks and feature a racing heart rate, shallow breathing, tightness across the chest, and numbness during panic attacks. But while panic attacks trigger very real feelings of terror, panic attacks themselves are not life-threatening and typically pass within 15 seconds to 30 minutes after their onset.
Myth #5 – Experiencing Anxiety and Having a Panic Attack is the Same
Feeling overwhelmed and anxious are often the closest many people get to a panic attack, which can ultimately lead to damaging and insensitive comparisons. The truth is, we all feel anxious. But most of us don’t experience the terrifying physical symptoms of overwhelming fear that accompany panic attacks. Even fewer of us have experienced the recurring and unexpected nature of panic attacks from a panic disorder which involves recurring physical symptoms that impact functioning and quality of life.
Myth #6 – People with Panic Disorder Require Lifelong Medication
While many might benefit from medication, this isn’t the only path to treating panic disorder. Medications can be helpful supplements to treating panic disorder, but all treatment paths should be tailored to the individual. For this reason, most physicians combine medications with psychotherapy to treat panic disorder.
Medications typically used to treat the panic disorder include beta-blockers, SSI or SNRIs, and benzodiazepines.
Beta-blockers help by reducing the effect of anxiety symptoms and are most helpful when taken right before a panic attack.
Benzodiazepines are fast-acting and powerful sedatives that quickly reign in panic disorder symptoms, but should be used with caution as they also lead to tolerance, dependence and addiction.
SSI and SNRI medications are typically reserved for depression, but can also help with regulating anxiety, although they often take 1-2 weeks to take effect.
Regardless, few health professionals see medication as the end of the road. The most effective path to living with panic disorder involves therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and panic-focused psychodynamic therapy (PFPP) which can all be used in combination with medications.
If you or someone you love is struggling with panic disorder, know that you’re not alone. You are not your anxiety, and your symptoms are not just in your head. Panic disorder is very real and can impact the quality of life when left unchecked. Should you have any questions or would like support in exploring the many pathways to living with panic disorder, reach out to us at Bhatia Psychology Group – we’re here to help.