Living with panic disorder

With no warning, no apparent reason, panic hits and you’re powerless to stop it.

This is not just stress or nervousness, it’s a panic attack and can have very real and serious consequences.

July is Mental Health Awareness and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) is informing the community about the different mental illnesses and that those suffering from them should not be stigmatised.

  • Symptoms

Physical symptoms like heart palpitations, dizziness, nausea, tingling, and chest pains seem to come out of nowhere, from harmless situations like driving or sitting in a movie theatre, even while sleeping.

Some researchers believe that when our brain’s normal mechanism for reacting to a threat – the “fight or flight” response – becomes inappropriately aroused, the result is a panic attack.

“Nausea, jelly legs, irritability – I didn’t know what was happening,” said Peter Matlahaela, a panic sufferer and now a Support Group Leader in Mamelodi.

The panic attack itself is not dangerous, terrifying definitely, but not physically dangerous.

“Most people who experience panic attacks feel as if they are going crazy or are out of control,” said Johannesburg-based anxiety expert psychologist Dr Colinda Linde.

“Most people feel anxious about the possibility of having another panic attack and avoid situations in which they believe these attacks are likely to occur.”

  • Anxiety

And this is where the danger comes in – anxiety about having another attack, and the avoidance it causes. For example, someone who has had a panic attack while driving may be afraid to get behind the wheel again, even to drive to the local supermarket.

Panic attacks may occur at night resulting in disturbed sleep as the person awakes in a state of terror. The experience is so distressing that some people who have nocturnal panic attacks become afraid to go to sleep and suffer sleep deprivation and exhaustion.

People who develop these panic-induced phobias tend to avoid situations they fear will trigger a panic attack, and their lives may be increasingly limited as a result

Some people with extreme cases of panic develop agoraphobia – a fear of going outdoors – due to the belief that by staying inside, all panic-provoking situations can be avoided.

When people who suffer from panic disorder try to avoid situations that may trigger an attack, the consequences can be far-reaching. Their work may suffer because they can’t travel or get to work on time. Relationships may be strained or marred by conflict as panic attacks, or the fear of them, rule the affected person and those around them.

  • Treatment

Treatment of course is often holistic, and it won’t work overnight, but if you stick with it, you should start noticing improvements within a few sessions.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) focuses on identifying, confronting and testing negative and automatic thoughts and assumptions with reality, and brings about a more realistic way of thinking about fearful situations, and challenges anxiety-provoking thoughts and feelings.

“Going for CBT therapy, learning self-help tips, joining a Support Group and learning more about Panic can help you take back control of your life,” said Zane Wilson, Director of SADAG.

Carmen Norton
Journalist / Features Writer

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