Panic disorder

How Can a Psychologist Help?

What is panic disorder?

Affecting approximately 5% of Australians in their lifetime, this condition is characterized by repeated, unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense and overwhelming physical feelings of anxiety (racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness) that can trigger thoughts reflecting fear of losing control, dying or ‘losing your mind’.

Panic disorder can occur in people of any age; but most commonly affects people in their 20’s and later in mid-life, and is found to be rarer in older people and children.  It is also somewhat more common in women than men.

How can a psychologist help?

Panic attacks are common; with many experiencing a few isolated attacks in their lifetime. What sets panic disorder apart is the worry that individuals experience about having further panic attacks, which can lead them to avoid situations and activities that might trigger them. They might also worry that their panic attacks reflect an underlying medical condition and seek excessive reassurance e.g. repeated medical tests.

A psychologist can work with individuals to change the way they respond to panic attacks; through reducing avoidance and using anxiety management strategies. By building a better understanding of panic attacks, and effective ways to take control individuals can overcome panic disorder and reduce the impact on their lives.

How can I get help?

The first step is to consult your GP who can give you more information about panic disorder and treatment options. They can also provide you with a Mental Health Treatment Plan (MHTP) and a referral for psychological therapy.

Under the Medicare Benefits Scheme you can get a rebate on up to 10 sessions of psychological therapy in any calendar year with your MHTP; although often there will be a gap fee payable by you.

What can I expect at my first appointment with a psychologist?

At your first session it’s likely that you’ll be asked to fill in some questionnaires measuring symptoms of anxiety and panic. Your psychologist will also meet with you 1:1 to ask you more in depth questions about your panic attacks (e.g. frequency, triggers, symptoms), and the impact panic has had on your life.  They are likely to ask you questions about any history of anxiety in yourself or family members.

How will a psychologist choose the right treatment?

Your psychologist will refer to research into effective therapies for panic disorder to choose the most appropriate approach for you. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is heavily supported by research, and used commonly to treat anxiety disorders such as panic disorder.  Therapy is likely to involve learning more about anxiety, ways of challenging your anxious thoughts and predictions, and exposing yourself to situations that trigger anxiety.

What happens next?

Your psychologist should have a clear plan and timeframe for your treatment, and it’s likely that you will regularly review your progress with your psychologist and re-set goals if necessary.


Written by Dr Ashley McColl