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How do psychologists treat panic attacks? (Counselling Articles)

Many clients who consult a psychologist for panic attacks require only two therapy sessions. In the first session, the psychologist will explain what panic attacks are and how to dismantle future attacks if they occur. During the second visit, the psychologist usually checks in with the client to ensure he or she has been able to stop subsequent attacks. In situations where further counseling is required, the client usually has longer-standing problems with anxiety and may benefit from remaining in therapy longer to learn to better manage their anxiety.

In my practice, I begin by asking my clients that are seeking therapy for panic attacks to endorse the symptoms they experience. Common symptoms frequently reported include:

  • pounding heart or accelerated heart rate,
  • sweating or trembling,
  • shortness of breath,
  • chest pain or discomfort,
  • feeling dizzy or lightheaded,
  • and fear of dying.

The complete list of symptoms can be found in the DSM-IV-TR, which is a diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals. (For more detailed information, try a search for Panic Attack Symptoms on the internet). A client has to have experienced at least four of the 12 symptoms, and the symptoms have to have developed abruptly and reached a peak within 10 minutes, to receive a diagnosis.

When I worked directly in physicians’ offices I would provide counselling to at least five or six new clients a week for panic attacks. I would share that at least 10 percent of people will experience at least one panic attack during their lifetimes.

I continue to treat clients with panic attacks today in my Calgary office. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, I tell each client a series of stories to explain why panic attacks occur, and then in therapy sessions, teach physical strategies and thinking strategies that the client can use to dismantle future attacks.

Read more about What triggers a panic attack and Why we have them and How to stop a panic attack.

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Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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