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Don’t Panic! New Treatment/Study Helps People Who Suffer From Panic Attacks

February 17, 2005 --

For most people, a trip to the top of the Empire State Building is a thrill with a view. But for someone with a fear of heights, that ride to the 86th floor observatory is a horrifying prospect. Whether it’s a fear of heights, or spiders, or driving, or social situations, or a fear of fear itself, all of these people suffer from potentially debilitating anxiety disorders and the resulting panic attacks that can keep them from doing the routine activities of everyday life.

But Bethany Teachman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is here to help. Teachman is leading a three-year study designed to help relieve people of their panic disorders within a few months. One former client with a fear of heights recently made that trip to the top of the Empire State Building. She not only enjoyed the view; she found it exhilarating.

“I let the excitement take over the fear,” she said.

Teachman and psychology graduate student Shannan Smith-Janik use a series of 12, 90-minute weekly sessions to help clients confront their fears, gain confidence and, in most cases, participate in activities — such as driving – that were once out of the question for them. The sessions are conducted in small groups of four to eight clients.

“People with anxiety disorders are fully rational and normal people, but they have a catastrophic interpretation of certain things,” Teachman said. “In specific circumstances — when they have panic attacks — they experience intense tension and a sense of impending doom. Some think they may actually be dying. It’s a scary, out-of-control feeling. They come to us desperate to manage this problem.”

Though fear is normal during dangerous or threatening situations – in fact it is a survival mechanism — people with anxiety disorders experience intense anxiety in everyday situations. Often they are fully aware that their fear is inappropriate for the circumstance, but that may only compound the problem. This becomes fear of fear.

“Fear of future attacks leads to the disorder, and this can result in severe impairment, to the point that some people may become homebound because they do not want to go out and confront their fears.” Teachman said.

Researchers don’t fully understand why some people experience anxiety disorders or panic attacks, and the reasons and level of intensity vary from person to person, but the condition may originate from childhood experiences, or from genetic makeup, or from socializing conditions. Approximately 10 percent to 30 percent of the population will experience a panic attack at some point, which may be triggered by an event. Attacks may then become a recurring problem. But whatever the cause, there are effective treatments.

“We are using a highly effective approach to treating panic disorder based on cognitive behavior therapy principles where we help people re-evaluate situations that they interpret as dangerous, and we gradually help them get used to the bodily sensations that frighten them during panic attacks,” Teachman said.

About 80 percent to 90 percent of the people who receive this therapy no longer have panic attacks. Teachman describes the therapy as collaborative “healthy lifestyle strategies.” The clients set their own pace as they confront their fears. During the treatment, clients are taught to recognize how their thoughts lead to stress, and how to find alternate ways to deal with that stress, such as using mind and muscle relaxation techniques, controlled breathing, and releasing general tension.

“We try to normalize the experience of panic,” she said. “People initially don’t understand why they are having these thoughts and feelings and behaviors. We demystify the experience by explaining the reasons for the symptoms, and [clarifying] that, while these sensations are certainly uncomfortable, they are not dangerous.”

The clients also are exposed to some of the sensations they experience during panic attacks, such as dizziness (they spin around), and shortness of breath (they exercise). The clients keep a record of their thoughts and feelings about those sensations, which they then evaluate.

By following the treatment plan, “they eventually are able to do things again,” Teachman said. “It becomes very empowering for them.”

The client who saw the view from the top of the Empire State Building certainly agrees.

“The therapists taught me a completely different way of looking at things,” she said. “Now I’m able to manage my anxiety and enjoy life.”

To participate in this study:

If you believe you suffer from panic attacks and are interested in participating in this study, Teachman urges you to call her lab at 243-5555 and talk to a staff therapist. If the interviewer determines that you may fit the criteria to participate in the study, you will be invited to the lab for a two-hour evaluation. If you are then selected to participate in the study, you will be assigned to a treatment group and will participate in 12 group therapy sessions. “We let our clients know that they are not alone,” Teachman says. “We have effective treatments in a collaborative environment where the client is in control of the process.” The treatment is free of charge.

Contact: Fariss Samarrai, (434) 924-3778

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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