Like other anxiety disorders, panic disorder is very treatable. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered to be a first-line treatment for panic disorder and has been shown to be a highly effective treatment approach. CBT targets a person’s thoughts (or cognitions) and behaviors to decrease the frequency and intensity of panic attacks, as well as decreasing associated worry or avoidance. CBT consists of psychoeducation, cognitive (or thought) restructuring, relaxation training, and exposure therapy.
One of the most effective components of CBT is exposure, or approaching the feared symptoms, sensations, thoughts, and situations instead of avoiding them. While exposure can initially produce anxiety, at this point in treatment, the individual has learned useful coping strategies and can address the anxiety with the support and guidance of his/her therapist. By gradually recreating the physical symptoms (interoceptive exposure) of a panic attack in a safe and supportive environment, those with panic disorder learn to gain control of their symptoms. Through in-vivo exposure (or facing real life feared objects and scenarios), people with panic disorder take gradual steps towards facing feared situations until the situations either no longer produce anxiety or produce manageable levels of anxiety. As the physiological symptoms of anxiety become less threatening, the panic attacks and related worry and avoidance begin to improve.
To directly target the cognitive component of panic disorder, a CBT-trained therapist helps the individual recognize thought patterns that sustain fear and anxiety. Individuals often experience cognitive distortions, or thought-based inaccurate or flawed perceptions of reality. For instance, a person with panic disorder may experience catastrophizing thoughts, a cognitive pattern that is based on believing the worst will happen, despite a lack of evidence from past experiences to support this believed outcome. An example is a person believing that an increased heart rate is indicative of a heart attack, despite no history or risk factors of cardiovascular disease. CBT helps individuals learn to identify and internally dispute these unhelpful thinking patterns, which leads to more positive emotional and behavioral experiences.
For more information about panic disorder or to schedule an appointment with a panic disorder treatment specialist at Austin Anxiety and Behavioral Health Services please call (512) 246-7225 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are currently accepting new patients at our Round Rock and Austin therapy offices.