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Wellness > Mental Health

Navigating and Understanding Panic Disorder

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCT chapter.

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder affecting 0.8% of South Africans, and 2-3 times more women than men. Panic disorder is a heightened state of irrational and frantic panic, although to the sufferer they feel perfectly justified and proportional to the context. The panic is extremely overwhelming and intense with the perpetual dread that something terrible is going to happen to you.

What causes a panic attack?

Different stress-inducing situations can trigger panic attacks, especially if the situation has triggered a previous panic attack. Different people experience and deal with stress differently, for example I find campus and varsity life very stressful whereas others might not. And I find writing essays an explorative and enlightening process whereas others may find them stressful and anxiety-inducing. It is therefore not helpful to say that specific situations trigger panic attacks, but rather the ways people respond to situations trigger panic attacks.

Symptoms of panic disorder

The perplexing thing about panic disorder is that there is no real physical threat, but the sufferer feels as though they have to fight for their life. When I’ve personally experienced panic attacks, it feels as if I am under attack and there is no way for me to escape the threatening situation. My adrenaline surges, and all my sensory functions become heightened: Smell, sight, and hearing increase dramatically. This is in fact a key symptom of panic disorder. Other key symptoms include:

  • Heart palpitations

  • Sweating

  • Dizziness

  • Shortness of breath or choking sensations

  • The feeling that you cannot escape

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Uncontrollable crying

  • Feeling detached from your surroundings and body

All of these symptoms can be seen as allowing the body to function to fight for survival. The panic attack is therefore not simply an exaggerated response to anxiety or stress, but the body attempting to fight off a threat that is not real or physical. It is a distortion of the body’s fear response to a physical threat, activating the fight, flight, or freeze response.

How does adrenaline work?

Adrenaline is released by the body when one experiences a panic attack similar to when one is in a life-threatening situation. For example, if you were being chased on foot by a lion, your breathing would increase to supply more oxygen to your body cells and your brain to run faster and think clearer, your digestive system would come to a halt, and you would start sweating to cool the body down while you run. This adrenaline enacts the same effects on your somatic system during a panic attack. You can already see, I’m sure, that this heightened state of panic is not proportional to, for example, a normal amount of stress.

Steps to relieving panic attacks

This anxiety disorder, however, can be managed by incorporating mindful techniques as a form of therapy or treatment. For example…

1. Take long deep breaths through the nose and out through your mouth. Panic attacks often result in shortness of breath due to the adrenaline released when experiencing fear. Reassert control over your somatic nerve system by breathing mindfully and meaningfully, calming your heart rate and mind.

2. Repeat an empowering mantra to yourself. For example, “I am strong. I am powerful. I am in control.” These mantras, when believed fully and wholeheartedly, can be incredibly powerful in healing the soul of the fear and panic experienced during an anxiety attack.

3. Make the internal anxiety external, and therefore less powerful, by writing it down or speaking to someone about it. When we worry about something internally, we often don’t have anyone to contest our opinions or thoughts. Talking to someone or reading through what you’ve written can be a reflective and calming process in that you see that your fear is out of proportion to the situation.

However helpless and out of control you feel in these situations, please know that you are not alone. Many students at UCT suffer from the same anxiety disorder, and there are measures in place on Upper Campus to guide you through this process and strengthen your mental capacity. Both Health services and Counseling services are available to you at Student Wellness at 28 Rhodes Avenue, Mowbray.

Health services contact info:

021 650 1020


Counseling services contact info:

021 650 1017


Sarah-Kate is a student at the University of Cape Town currently completing her Honours degree in Psychology. She is also the Co-Senior Editor of Her Campus UCT 2020 and actress in short film Dear Romilly. Her interests include baking, writing, yoga, empowering women, and educating the world on mental illnesses through her blog (sarahkatesays.blogspot.com).