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Panic Disorder

You hear the word panic, and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Could it be anxiety or fear? Or perhaps thoughts go to someone in your life who panics? Or does a process of elimination start where you try to figure out if this may be something that you may be facing?

Well you’re in luck, as the July is marked as Panic Awareness Month and we are here to do just that – explore panic disorder…in a calm manner. So let’s jum… take a deep breath and walk right in.


What is panic disorder?

“I feel my heart race. I start sweating. I start to get light headed.”

Panic Disorder is characterized by the Diagnostic Statistics Manual 5 (DSM-5) as recurrent, unexpected panic attacks where individuals feel an abrupt surge of intense fear that reaches a peak within minutes. The abrupt surge can include more than one of the following unexpected symptoms:

· Heart palpitations

· Sweating

· Trembling & Shaking

· Shortness of breath

· Nausea

· Feeling of dizziness

· Fear of losing control/dying

We react in this way as we might feel that our survival is being threatened, and therefore our bodies react according to the flight-fight response.

You may be experiencing these symptoms in various degrees of frequency and severity, which can range from daily (frequent attacks) to twice a month (less frequent attacks). The second criteria that therapists will consider is the following:

· Persistent worry about additional panic attacks

· Maladaptive behaviour change to avoid situations to avoid panic attacks (exercise, new spaces, work, school).

As you may be reading this and going down the list of symptoms, it may be sounding a lot like anxiety disorder. Let’s explain that a little bit further.


Panic Attacks vs Anxiety Attacks

Panic attacks are significantly characterized because of their sudden and unexpected nature. Whereas, anxiety attacks are often distinguished because of the presence of significant trigger or stressor.

Panic Attack

  • Sudden and Extreme

  • Chest Pain

  • Shaking and Trembling

  • Feeling disconnected from yourself or surroundings

  • Peaks in 10 minutes. Ends in 20-30 minutes

Anxiety Attacks

  • Gradually builds up

  • Disturbed Sleep

  • Muscle Tension

  • Irritability & Fatigue

  • Worry & Stress that intensifies over a longer period of time. Can last for hours -days


What should I do when I am feeling a panic attack?

There are numerous self-help strategies for getting through a panic attack. Some useful techniques are listed below:

· Acknowledge what is happening.

It can be really unpleasant and scary. But just remind yourself that these feelings aren’t dangerous and they will pass.

If you’ve been through it before, remember that you have overcome this once already.

· Breathe slowly and deeply

It can sometimes feel very difficult to breathe and is the most common symptom.

Try to slow your breathing down. Take long and deep breaths. Count to 4 with each inhalation and exhalation.

· Relaxation techniques

There are various relaxation techniques that one can be very specific to each individual. Try out things that make you usually feel relaxed like:

  1. Your favourite hot beverage

  2. Soft, soothing music

  3. An object that you enjoy the sensation of such as a blanket, or pillow

  4. Do a full body stretch

  5. Take a “time-out”

A therapist specialized in guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation can also teach you these techniques.

· Mindfulness exercises

Mindfulness is useful tool that makes you refocus your attention to the present moment. It works to re-orientate your thoughts and feelings to the “now” without need of judgement.

· Book an appointment with a psychologist

The therapist will work to explore your triggers and manage symptoms of the panic disorder.

They will tailor the techniques to your personality. CBT has been proven to work most effectively for this disorder.

They will also work towards exploring and accepting your past, building and maintaining awareness of the present, and working to build your future.


In closing, panic attacks can feel very disruptive and be very frightening if left unchecked. But it is very possible to manage these symptoms by using an array of exercises, tools and expertise to address the panic attacks.

Kavishka Moodley

Counselling Psychologist

Psych Central Rivonia

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