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Panic Disorders


Panic Disorder / Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are actually quite common. Panic Disorder (PD) occurs when attacks have become frequent, when they interfere with functioning, and when the fear of having another panic has become a problem in and of itself for more than one month. Typical panic symptoms include palpitations, flushing, tingling in the extremities, dry mouth, light-headedness, and fear of losing control or going “crazy.”

Panic symptoms may seem to “come out of the blue” or be more expected. Sometimes they occur right before falling off into sleep, or just when awakening. In many cases, the frequency and severity of attacks waxes and wanes in a confusing manner. People with Panic Disorder often get into a habit of avoiding situations and places that they believe puts them at risk for having another attack. This is called fear of fear or anticipatory anxiety.

Side Effects of Panic Disorders

A severe kind of social withdrawal called agoraphobia may emerge as a consequence of trying to avoid panic attacks. Depression is also common as a co-occurring feature and may be accompanied by suicidal ideations. There may also be a tendency to self-medicate that only makes matters worse. Those with PD also seek out “safety signals” like sitting on the aisle of a row of seats at a movie theater or become hyper-aware and anxiously scan their environments for problems. Unfortunately, the relief that avoidance behaviors and “safety signals” bring feeds into the problem by a process of negative reinforcement.

A Panic Disorder Must Be Professionally Diagnosed

A number of medical conditions exist that can mimic Panic Disorder. Therefore, it is important that these conditions be ruled out as part of the diagnostic process. There has been a lot of speculation about what causes panic attacks. Both biological and psychological theories have been well researched. Overall, perhaps the most helpful way to conceptualize PD is to use the concept of a “false alarm.” There is a part of our nervous system that is designed to deal with perceived threats. This, essentially, involves the “fight or flight” response. This physiological mechanism has been wired into human beings since caveman days and is designed to protect us.

In our modern world many individuals have “fight or flight” responses that mistakenly get triggered. However, the body reacts as if it was faced with real danger. All of the symptoms and behaviors involved in a panic attack would be useful and make sense if the danger was real. The problem is that a person having a sudden Panic Attack understandably cannot make sense of what is happening to them and usually will do just about anything to escape the awful thoughts and feelings they are experiencing. Panic Attacks are very frightening until a person really has developed the necessary knowledge and skills to cope effectively. Some people try to avoid re-experiencing Panic Attacks regardless at the costs to their education, career, or relationships.

Symptoms & Treatment

When a person develops PD, they often become hypersensitive to their regular and involuntary bodily functions. Changes in body temperature, breathing, heartbeat or other sensations are usually misinterpreted as a sign of an imminent panic attack. Therefore people will carefully “monitor” these functions, becoming overly sensitive (e.g. checking pulse). This hyper-awareness combined with cognitive errors (e.g. “I am sweating, therefore, I am having a heart attack.”) often is what triggers a Panic Attack.

Panic Disorder is very treatable. The key is early and effective intervention. For many, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) will prove effective, and if not, CBT combined with medication is another option. CBT for PD involves becoming as educated as possible about the false alarm model. The next step is to eliminate backfiring avoidance behaviors and safety signals and gradually learn to remain in uncomfortable situations.

Developing the skills to tolerate uncomfortable but benign physiological changes and interpret them more rationally (e.g. “I’m not going crazy, I’m just dizzy.”) is essential for success. Additionally, inducing the very symptoms that have been so distressing is a key part of CBT for PD. The idea is that a person can learn to experience “false alarms” in a less upsetting way and learn how not to react to, or become “desensitized,” to them.

We are experienced in providing cognitive behavioral therapy to treat panic attacks for patients in Weston and throughout Florida. Call 954-280-3226 to learn more.

Neurobehavioral Institute (NBI) is a dedicated mental health center focused on the treatment of Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Related Conditions. We specialize in providing personalized care and evidence-supported Cognitive Behavioral therapies (CBT) tailored to meet your specific needs.


Get control of your life. For more information, please call us at 954-280-3226.

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