Panic disorder is characterized by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks often arise “out of the blue” and are accompanied by physical symptoms (i.e. pounding heart, sweating, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, etc.). The person is likely to make catastrophic predictions based on the panic attack including fears they are having a heart attack or “going crazy.”
Panic attacks peak within a few minutes but a person with panic disorder may experience anticipatory anxiety in which they worry about a future panic attack or they may change their behavior in hopes of avoiding future panic attacks (i.e. avoiding new situations, avoiding exercise, etc.).
Panic disorder is commonly treated using interoceptive exposure therapy in which the person exposes themselves to sensations that trigger panic attacks during sessions in order to learn that panic is not dangerous and disconfirm catastrophic beliefs.
For example, with the support of a therapist, the client may spin in a chair to simulate dizziness or run upstairs to simulate a rapidly beating heart.
By confronting these feared sensations and disconfirming predicted outcomes (i.e. I’m going to die of a heart attack) the anxiety begins to subside naturally.
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