Mental Health

Panic and Phobias: Symptoms & Treatments

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What are some of your greatest fears? Have you experienced this sensation of fear and dread that is so immense that you feel like you are about to pass out? Heavy breathing, sweating, racing heart, feeling weak and numb, all these are signs of panic and phobias.

While panic disorder and phobias have a lot of similar signs, with both of them being classified as ‘anxiety disorders’ in the DSM, but practically they are not the same thing. You can learn more about General Anxiety Disorder here

Phobias

Phobias are basically very intense fears, and each of them is very unique. While it is natural and inevitable that each of us have our own fears, be it fear of failing, fear of loss, fear of rejection, fear of missing out, fear of responsibility, or fear of death, they are not necessarily phobias.

For example, spiders are not necessarily the most comfortable creatures to hang around, but realistically speaking spiders cannot hurt us. It is normal to be more alert and wary of spiders (we might even be born with it), but if your response to spiders is very intense that you experience symptoms described above, you might have arachnophobia.

Human beings are equipped to experience fear so that we distance ourselves from threats. Phobias are overblown fears which are intense to the point that it leads to significant impairment of our functioning. Phobias are also specific (unlike Generalized Anxiety Disorder), such as certain animals, spaces, people, and situations. Three major types of phobias exist: specific phobias (intense fear towards specific objects and situations), social phobia (fear of being embarrassed or judged by others in social situations), and agoraphobia (fear of having a panic attack in social situations).

Panic Disorder

While panic attacks can be triggered by phobias, there is a separate recognized disorder known as panic disorder. People who suffer from frequent panic attacks don’t always have clear trigger: sometimes they happen suddenly and irregularly, which can lead them to develop anxiety anticipating these panic attacks which leads to even more panic attacks. Such tendencies might indicate having panic disorder, where the stress of anticipating their unpredictable panic attacks puts them in a cycle of panic. It is also likely that the victim will avoid going to places where they had panic attacks before, as they believe the location has a lot to do with the panic attack, which might over time become agoraphobia (as mentioned above).

It is not well understood why we develop panic disorder. It has been found to run in families and related to major life transitions, such as recently becoming a spouse, parent, or employee. Severe stress and other medical conditions can also trigger panic attacks that can develop into panic disorder.

Treatment

Fortunately, phobias can be treated and managed with psychotherapy. After being diagnosed, therapists can help clients make sense of the fear in different ways. Some therapists help by encouraging clients to expose themselves more to the stimuli as they get used to it and change their response to them. Others examine the reasons underlying these fears and challenge them in order to let clients develop alternative ways of viewing these situations. Clients can also work with therapists to develop ways of coping with these fears, such as strategies to avoid them.

Psychotherapy is also helpful for panic disorder. The therapist can teach clients emotional regulation methods to help client gain control of their feelings to prevent episodes of panic attacks. Therapists can also explore the (often irrational) reasons behind these panic attacks together and dispel the fear of experiencing more panic attacks. 

Overall, therapy with regards to phobias and panic disorder is to help clients make sense of their anxiety and fear while managing the unpleasant and physiological symptoms of the panic. There are reasons why we feel anxious or fearful, but therapy can help us cope with it and recognize the meaning behind these feelings, which can hopefully help us live better lives. 

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Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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