New Research Shows Panic Disorder Might Increase Gradually Over Time

Panic disorder is one type of stress-related condition that brings clients to massage therapy. Research has shown massage relieves anxiety, stress and depression while boosting mood and a sense of well being.

A new study by researchers at Brown University presents the finding that certain kinds of stressful life events cause panic symptoms to increase gradually over time, rather than to spike immediately.

“We definitely expected the symptoms to get worse over time, but we also thought the symptoms would get worse right away,” said Ethan Moitra, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, in a Brown University press release.

But even if the events don’t seem to trigger an immediate panic attack, said Dr. Martin Keller, professor of psychiatry and human behavior and principal investigator of the research, patients, family members, or their psychiatrists need to keep their guard up.

“If they have the event and they are not feeling much different then maybe the vigilance on the individual’s part decreases somewhat,” Keller said. “With the knowledge we have, you may need to stay vigilant for three months or maybe longer. This is something you have to watch for.”

The study is based annual assessments of 418 adults with panic disorder or panic disorder with agoraphobia, who were enrolled in the Harvard/Brown Anxiety Research Project (HARP) between 1998 and 2004. Research staff asked the volunteers detailed, standardized questions about important events in their lives and their levels of anxiety.

A statistical analysis of the results found that for stressful life events in the categories of “work,” such as a demotion or layoff, or “friends/family/household,” such as a family argument, panic symptoms that had meandering severity before the event, increased steadily but gradually for at least 12 weeks afterward.

Moitra said a possible biological explanation for the association is that stressful life events might exacerbate an underlying proclivity in people with panic disorder to perceive oncoming bouts of hyperventilation, which in turn lead to panic responses.

But while some stressful events have proven to be associated with changes in panic symptom levels, more research is needed to determine what kind of causal role stressful events may have.

“This may be one of those reasons why panic disorders can get worse,” Moitra said.

The study results were published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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