Psychotherapy is one of the main treatment options offered to patients with anxiety and panic attack problems. Its aim is to help the patient overcome the symptoms of their condition so that they can eventually resume a normal life. It can often do this on its own, but in some circumstances, particularly where the patient has very frequent and severe panic attacks, a doctor may advise a combination of psychotherapy and drug-based medication.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
There are several ‘talking’ therapies, but probably the most widely used for panic disorder is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT helps you to manage your condition by changing how you think (cognitive) and act (behavioural) in relation to your panic disorder. It is reckoned that as many as 80% of patients undergoing CBT show significant improvement in their condition. Note that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy cannot ‘cure’ your problem, but it can help you to ‘manage’ it.
CBT works by helping to change your inappropriate negative thought patterns — which are at the root and perpetuation of your problem — into more positive ones. It then teaches you how to use these positive thoughts to alter the way you react to your condition.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy differs from other talking therapies in that it has a defined structure rather than the patient talking freely about whatever comes into their head. Another major difference is that, although it concedes that past events can shape how you feel and behave today, it does not dwell in the past. Rather, it generally stays in the ‘here and now,’ attempting to find practical ways to change your present negative thoughts and behaviours so that you can resume a normal life once more.
Overall, CBT usually consists of a 5 step process:-
- Learning the causes of panic attacks (psychoeducation)
- Self-monitoring of symptoms (daily symptom diary)
- Learning to breath correctly so as to reduce anxiety and panic (breathing retraining)
- Learning how to handle panic thoughts (cognitive restructuring)
- Testing these in low anxiety and then in high anxiety situations (exposure therapy)
Through CBT you learn how to assess and manage your panic attacks in a more positive way with the ultimate objective of preventing them occurring altogether.
To be most effective, you also have to commit to do some ‘homework’ that has been agreed during each session. This can vary according to what was discussed and learnt during the session, for example the daily diary and, as therapy progresses, things such as coping exercises and so on. This is a very important part of your recovery process. Those patients who faithfully carry out these home assignments seem to get the most benefit from CBT.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy usually involves weekly or fortnightly sessions with a professional therapist. Each session will last between 50 to 60 minutes. The number of sessions needed will depend on the severity of your condition and so can be anywhere from 2 to 6 months, perhaps even longer in exceptional cases.