Shining the Light of Healing on Anxiety Disorder
by Neal Sideman
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Understanding Panic Disorder

The fire alarm analogy can help us understand panic disorder. 

Suppose you had never heard a fire alarm before, but you knew what it was.  The first time you hear the alarm, your whole body and mind react as though there is great danger.  Your whole body is primed, ready for superhuman action, including rescuing others and fleeing at top speed.  And a good thing too, because that alarm might have signaled a real fire.

But now let's suppose you have a peculiar condition called "fire alarm disorder."  False alarms keep going off – there is never any real fire.  Still, your body and mind react as though each alarm signals mortal danger.  Before long, you are in a constant state of apprehension, never knowing when the next alarm will go off.  Your high state of anxiety sets off even more alarms.

With a good teacher and hard work, you can learn that all those false alarms are really harmless.  As you begin to learn this, something amazing happens.  The false alarms gradually become less frequent.  Finally, they fade away altogether.   


Why do some people get panic disorder? 

Many researchers believe there is a biological predisposition for panic disorder.  People with this predisposition may be more sensitive and reactive than average.  They may also be more imaginative and creative.

The onset of panic disorder usually occurs during a highly stressful period, such as the illness or death of a loved one.  It usually starts with a series of panic attacks that can seem to come "out of the blue".  In the wake of the panic attacks, the individual develops a pervasive fear of panic, with  persistent, high levels of anxiety.  This pervasive "fear of panic" is at the core of panic disorder. 


Understanding Agoraphobia

Many people have what are called "specific phobias" (e.g., air travel, enclosed spaces, heights, snakes, spiders, etc.).  These phobias are called “specific” because they relate to only one type of situation.  Usually, they don't greatly interfere with daily life.

Agoraphobia, on the other hand, affects many different types of situations and greatly interferes with daily life.

A large proportion of people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia, which results when the individual restricts his/her activities in an effort to avoid panic attacks.

For example, if the first panic attack was on a freeway, the individual might avoid that particular freeway.  Later on, he/she might experience near-panic on another freeway.  So, he/she starts avoiding all freeways in an effort to avoid panic.

Unfortunately, the panic response is located inside the mind and body, not on the freeway.  So, the pattern of avoidance and withdrawal continues.  The association of panic and anxiety to many different situations is called agoraphobia.  Most often, these situations have to do with being away from home, being away from a "safe" person, or being in situations in which a quick “escape” could be difficult.

This website often refers to "panic disorder and agoraphobia," since the two conditions often go together, like two sides of a coin.  If your greatest anxiety is triggered by social situations and you are more afraid of embarrassment or disapproval than a panic attack, then you may have "social phobia", also known as "social anxiety disorder."  Social phobia differs from panic disorder, and the best treatments differ as well.  For more information, take a look at our Social Phobia Resources page.

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