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Marriage and Family Therapy

How MFT Can Help with Panic Disorder

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Updated February 05, 2013

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Marriage and family therapy can be a helpful treatment option for people with panic disorder.

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Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by intense fear, nervousness, and panic attacks. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with panic disorder, you know all too well how this condition can impact a person’s life. Panic disorder can negatively affect a person’s relationships, especially with those closest to them.

When relationships become strained due to one person’s struggle with panic disorder, it may be time to seek professional help. Marriage and family therapy, or simply MFT, can offer a way to manage symptoms while mending the stress and discord within relationships. The following describes how MFT can help with panic disorder.

What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

MFT is one type of psychotherapy that involves providing therapeutic services to couples and families. Couples, family members, or very close friends attend MFT in hopes of reconciling issues that are causing conflicts within the relationships.

A pioneer of family therapy was American psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen, who noticed that his client’s ability to grow, heal, and change was largely influenced by his relationships. Systems theory suggests that change can either be encouraged or thwarted by a person's close family members. Interpersonal relationships are subject to patterned roles and rules of accepted behavior that are rigid and unique to each couple or family. In this sense, a person’s close relationships can be a factor in contributing to his management of panic disorder.

When is MFT Needed for Panic Disorder?

Many issues can occur between a person with panic disorder and his/her partner and other family members. It's not uncommon for panic disorder symptoms to contribute to problems within relationships, causing feelings of anger and resentment. For instance, family members may feel the strain of caregiver stress, or a person may not know how to help a partner with panic disorder. Loved ones may even become frustrated with the person with panic disorder, feeling that they're just overreacting.

Aside from anxiety and panic attacks, many people with panic disorder also develop avoidance behaviors, in which certain situations are avoided out of fear of having a panic attack. Known as agoraphobia, the person begins to associate some situations with the sensations of panic attacks, such as driving on the freeway or being in crowded areas. These fears can become so intense that the person becomes homebound with agoraphobia.

An additional diagnosis of agoraphobia can greatly impact family life. It can lead to changes in lifestyle, such as an inability to stay within the same career or attend important family events. Such increased dependency can potentially put additional strain on the relationship, and can even contribute to a co-occurring diagnosis of depression. This is especially concerning when a person is feeling lonely, ashamed, or in denial of his condition.

The person with panic disorder and/or agoraphobia may feel a great deal of hurt and shame due to his condition. When faced with panic disorder, a person needs support and acceptance, especially from close friends and family. When panic disorder has caused tension between relationships, couples and families can attend MFT to work through these issues.

Through MFT, couples and families can learn ways to better communicate with each other and foster a healthier connection. MFT can also focus on how the couple or family can come together to support the loved one with panic disorder. For instance, together the family can learn coping strategies, relaxation techniques, behavior modifications, and other skill-building techniques that will allow for everyone to deal with their stress and anxiety.

Getting Help Through MFT

MFT can be a helpful treatment option if your struggle with panic disorder is also negatively affecting your relationships. It can become part of your treatment plan, along with other effective treatment options. To get started, your doctor, therapist, or mental health specialist may refer you to a qualified marriage and family therapist. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy also has an online directory, the AAMFT Therapist Locator, where you can look for a licensed marriage and family therapist in your area.

Sources:

American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. AAMFT Therapy Topic: Panic Disorder. Accessed on January 17, 2013.

Gehart, D. R., & Tuttle, A. R. (2002). Theory-Based Treatment Planning for Marriage and Family Therapists: Integrating Theory and Practice. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Sherman, R., & Fredman, N. (1986). Handbook of Structured Techniques in Marriage and Family Therapy. Levittown, PA: Brunner/Mazel.

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