2. The Role of Panic Attacks
- To have a diagnosis of panic disorder, the person must experience recurrent and spontaneous panic attacks. Panic attacks are a feeling of intense fear without the presence of an actual danger. Panic attacks are often experienced with physical sensations, such as dizziness, nausea and trembling.
- A person with PTSD can also experience the physical sensations of panic attacks, such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath and hot flashes. However, these attacks are brought on by the re-experiencing of the traumatic event through such outlets as dreams, thoughts and flashbacks. Hyperarousal symptoms present in PTSD, such as becoming panicked after hearing a loud noise, can also cause panic attacks.
3. Avoidance Behaviors
- Having a panic attack can be a terrifying experience. People with panic disorder often become frightened just thinking about their next impending attack. This dread of future attacks can become so powerful that the person develops agoraphobia, a fear of having a panic attack from which it would be difficult or emarrassing to flee. The person will avoid places where they believe attacks will occur and create a safe zone, in which they limit their exposure to certain areas that they feel they will not have an attack.
- People with PTSD display many avoidance symptoms. They often avoid places, activities, thoughts, conversations, people and other stimuli that remind them of the traumatic event. A person may even experience memory loss of the event. A person with PTSD may also become distant from others, limit activities, find it difficult to express a full range of feelings and lose hope about their future.
Fortunately, there are many treatment options for panic disorder, including medication and psychotherapy. These forms of treatment can also effectively treat PTSD. There are several classes of medications that might be used for symptom reduction. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of antidepressants commonly prescribed to reduce anxiety, intensity of panic attacks and hyperarousal. Benzodiazepines are a type of anti-anxiety medication that is prescribed for its sedative effect.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common form of psychotherapy that can help to lessen the symptoms of either panic disorder or PTSD. For example, systematic desensitization is a CBT technique that entails therapist-guided gradual exposure to anxiety provoking situations. The person learns to manage his or her fear in these situations through relaxation techniques. By continually practicing gradual exposure and relaxation through therapy, certain stimuli that once triggered anxiety will eventually no longer cause extreme nervousness and fear in the person.
Both panic disorder and PTSD have intense symptoms that can be successfully reduced through proper treatment. It is important to get treatment at the onset of either condition to decrease the odds that the disorder will get worse. For example, by treating the hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD, the development of panic attacks may be prevented. Additionally, the chances of becoming agoraphobic can be lowered by receiving help for panic disorder and attacks early on.
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