Lying In Wait: Stress’s Effect On Panic Disorders

stress and panic disorder
Panic symptoms manifest steadily over time, not acutely, after stressful life events. | Image Source: Becky Wetherington, Flickr

Stress is one of the most common health hazards we face in everyday life. It is linked to heart disease, decreased autoimmune response–even worsened allergies.[1. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/stress-dangers/] Whether it comes from work, driving, trying to pay the bills, or from family and friends, we are constantly under attack by stress. We all try to mitigate its negative effects, but for those with panic disorders, stress management is especially crucial to long-term well-being.

How stress interacts with panic disorders

A 2011 study of the effects of stress on people with panic disorder shows that–against what we might expect–panic symptoms do not manifest immediately following stressful events.[2. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110620133142.htm] The study’s findings show that symptoms do not spike after a stressful episode, but instead build up gradually over time–or, as researchers put it–‘panic symptoms increase steadily, not acutely,’ after stressful events. So though you don’t notice an effect on your panic disorder directly after a stressful event, that event could lead to symptoms like anxiety or panic many weeks later.

The kids of stress to watch out for may surprise you. Stressors such as death, crimes or legal trouble do not seem to affect panic symptoms at all, but the minor issues–family arguments, work, housing problems, and conflicts between friends are among the types of stress this study shows to continuously worsen panic disorder symptoms over time. So what can you do to better manage stress?

Keep a channel open: Don’t merely brush off stressful incidents

Because your panic disorder doesn’t immediately react to stress, it is easy to believe stressors have not affected your disorder (and therefore should not or will not). However, data from this study shows a steady increase in panic symptoms over a 12-week period following a stressful episode, demonstrating that there is an impact of stress on their subjects, despite a lack of immediate, palpable reaction.

It’s easy to discount the effects of stress in the immediate absence of anxiety or panic attacks, but these stressors can hurt you later. That is why Dr. Martin Keller, a principal researcher in the study, cautioned that people with panic disorder should remain mindful of stress’s potential for harm. “If they have the event and they are not feeling much different then maybe the vigilance on the individual’s part decreases somewhat. […] With the knowledge we have, you may need to stay vigilant for three months or maybe longer.”

The purpose of remaining vigilant, in this case, is not to dwell on a stressful event–potentially worsening its impact–but to contextualize the event in an effort to keep any potentially negative effects from creeping in months later. By remaining mindful of a negative event, you can mitigate its harmful effects by returning to the problem, reminding yourself to keep a positive mindset. Say you were recently demoted. Though that work stressor didn’t trigger an immediate panic attack, you can’t just push it under the rug. Revisit it, reminding yourself that “This demotion was about the budget–it doesn’t reflect on me personally,” or that “I am more than the job that I do.” Therapy can help you tackle stressors, lessening their impact on your panic disorder.

Managing stress

Because stress so dramatically affects people with panic disorder, it is important to identify sources of stress and know how to directly respond to incoming stress factors. If you are ‘new’ to panic disorder, then getting a professional assessment and treatment plan is an excellent first step to recovery. But if you have dealt with panic disorder for a while, then you know recognition is only half the battle. The rest is in managing your life within the context of panic disorder, which can be tricky–but does not have to feel like work.

Meditation, yoga, music, and art are excellent outlets for not only reducing stress, but for directly stimulating personal growth–whether it be through exercise, mindfulness, or expression. Meditation or yoga, for example, promote healthy mind-body pathways to increase physical awareness and strength through physical and mental conditioning. These holistic therapies are offered in treatment, and can be carried forward as long-term strategies to manage your panic disorder.

The next time you are faced with stress, and you get through it anyway, take a pause and consider whether you have fully dealt with the problem. Even armed with knowledge, managing stress with panic disorder is no small task. Bridges to Recovery can help you choose and learn the tools you need to get back on track and keep stressors in check. Controlling the negative effects of stress puts well-being back into your hands, and by monitoring your emotions and checking stress before it becomes problematic, you will enjoy greater peace of mind.