The occasional anxiety attacks – those times when your heart suddenly pounds, and you fill with fear – might be a panic disorder. These attacks occur with no reasonable trigger and can come at any time. A panic disorder can significantly lower your quality of life, both because of the experience itself and because of the concern that another one could happen at any time.
What a Panic Disorder Is
Panic disorders often begin during the teenage years or early adulthood and are twice as common in women as in men. The condition can run in families but is not necessarily genetic. Researchers are still trying to determine the causes of panic attacks – some believe that they occur when the body misinterprets normal sensations as threats, suddenly causing overwhelming fear. However, stress and environmental factors might also be triggers.
Simply experiencing a panic attack does not mean that you have a panic disorder. The disorder is characterized by repeated panic attacks, which usually include a fear of impending doom while the attack is occurring, as well as physical symptoms such as dizziness, chest pain, and breathing problems.
Additionally, even when an attack is not happening, a person with a panic disorder will worry about the next one, and avoid places where panic attacks have occurred in the past. This avoidance can lead to developing agoraphobia, a fear of public places.
Substance Abuse and Panic Disorders
People with panic disorders often turn to substances such as drugs or alcohol to numb their fears. Of course, this only ends up making it worse, since the substance becomes an escape and often leads to an addiction problem as well. Plus, these mind-altering substances can also trigger panic attacks themselves.
In fact, at least ten percent of people with a panic disorder abuse a substance, and up to forty percent of those seeking treatment for alcohol addiction also suffer from a panic disorder. Occasionally, the substance abuse triggers the disorder, but it is much more typical for a person to turn to drugs or alcohol in order to self-medicate and avoid feelings of dread.
When a person suffers from both panic disorders and substance abuse, it can sometimes be difficult to tell which came first. They are considered comorbid conditions and need treatment at the same time to be the most effective. A person needs to learn new, healthy, ways to manage their anxiety in order to stop turning to substances when they are at their weakest points.
However, the panic disorder can make the treatment itself more difficult. For example, someone who panics in social situations may not be able to benefit from a support group, and the constant fear of death might prevent someone from being able to focus in counseling.
Luckily, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven highly effective at treating both conditions at the same time. Our therapists are skilled at helping patients learn how to manage a panic disorder without turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms.