Panic Attacks and the Rise of CBT

A panic attack is a frightening experience – your heart begins to race and you feel as if you are about to die. The sufferer does not usually have a real reason to panic, the dangers are ‘all in the mind’, but the experience is very real. Research in the US has found that, of the patients arriving at A&E thinking they are having a heart attack, one in four is actually having a panic attack.

In treating panic attacks, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has proven extremely effective. The treatment consists of two parts. The cognitive part addresses the question of why the patient feels they are about to die. For example I may be convinced that if I go outside I will die. At a rational level I may well realise that this will not happen. At another level, the causality might seem very real to me. The therapists job is point out the inconsistencies in my thought processes.

The behavioural part of the therapy is all about training the body to relax, rather than allowing the sensations of panic to spiral out of control. Think of this as akin to Pavlov teaching his dog to salivate when he rang a bell.

Researchers are still not quite sure whether it is the behavioural part or the cognitive part of the therapy that is most effective. Either way, when combined, the therapy has been shown to be extremely effective in treating panic attacks.

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Published: 26 February 2005

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