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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    What causes a panic attack?

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    Joe Gubbay

    Clinical Psychologist, Counsellor, Psychologist, Psychotherapist

    I have worked in public hospitals as well as private practice over the past 25 years. As a clinical psychologist I treat depression, social anxiety, … View Profile

    Panic attacks generally are a response to a perceived threat - the threat doesn't have to be real, you just have to think that there's a threat.  

    You can have a panic attack in different situations, and in fact sometimes it's a normal, healthy response.  For example, if you're in the jungle being chased by a hungry lion, your body will do everything it can to save you, such as increasing your heart rate and breathing so more oxygen gets to your muscles so you can run faster, adrenaline will be flowing, and you won't be able to stay focused on anything - you want to be scanning the environment widely for any sign of threat.   

    Nowadays, we don't come across lions in jungles; our threats aren't typically physical.  But our bodies haven't caught up, so if we are feeling anxious about giving a speech to 200 people, that threat triggers the old “fight or flight” response.  And we label that “panic”.  

    In the case of panic disorder, having panicky symptoms takes people by surprise; you might notice your heart beating faster, or a feeling of dread, and then start worrying that something catastrophic is happening like you're about to have a heart attack or go mad.  Thinking that you might die then feeds the panicky feelings, which get worse, and within seconds or minutes you're experiencing a full blown panic attack.  Lets say that panic attack happened on a bus; you might decide to avoid buses because they make you feel panicky.  Before too long, you can be avoiding all sorts of places.  

    Even though panic is a terrible experience, fortunately it responds really well to psychological treatment, especially a style of treatment called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).  Treatment is fairly brief, typically 10 sessions or less.  If panic attacks are causing you concern, or impacting on your ability to get on with life, speak to your GP about getting a referral to a psychologist for treatment, which will be partly or fully covered by Medicare, as long as you have a referral.  Treatment is very effective!

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