Is there a panic-prone personality type? Got Anxiety?
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the third in a multi-part series regarding panic attacks, including information on panic symptoms, panic-prone personalities, medical conditions that mimic panic, and strategies for controlling attacks. The series is co-written by Barry Barmann and his wife, Mary.
When treating those within our private practice who evidence a diagnosis of Panic Disorder, we are often asked, “Why me”? “Was I born with some type of Panic Disorder gene”?
Although there is no one specific gene that is responsible for any particular anxiety disorder, a plethora of psychological and biological research strongly suggests there are specific personality traits that are genetically linked to anxiety conditions such as social anxiety, generalized anxiety and particularly, panic disorder.
As is the case with most personality characteristics, there are pros and cons associated with each trait.
However, this article is focused on the disadvantages of certain personality traits, with respect to their tendency to be most commonly associated with the development of Panic Disorder.
EXCESSIVE NEED FOR APPROVAL
Analogous to possessing an excessive need for approval, is the fear of rejection. Those who possess this personality trait tend to be highly sensitive to criticism, and often find it difficult to say no to others when asked to perform a favor.
This trait also results in the need to take sole responsibility for the happiness of friends and family, and to become overly sensitive to their needs.
The over-responsibility trait carries with it a great deal of stress that, over time, often results in sensations of panic.
Having a panic attack in the presence of those who are important to please is viewed as synonymous with failure, and “letting friends down.”
Those who suffer from Panic Disorder evidence the ability to creatively imagine, in vivid detail, future “what-if” scenarios that entail rather horrific personal consequences, resulting in panic sensations.
The creative mind has no difficulty imagining a host of terribly frightening events that are believed to have a very high probability of occurrence, such as suddenly choking during dinner at a restaurant located in a high-rise building, racing to the nearest bathroom, then accidently falling over the ledge of the building and plummeting to one’s death.
Perfectionism consists of excessively high expectations, black and white thinking when evaluating one’s achievements, and the tendency to discount positive results, while focusing solely on any aspect of the task that was not up to his or her standards.
Thus, anything less than perfect is considered a failure. This creates a “task-self-fusion” phenomena. That is, one’s self-worth becomes a product of tasks that were performed perfectly, which never exists, quickly resulting in feelings of frustration and low self-esteem.
As confidence continues to erode, stress erupts into a crescendo of panic, and often a future diagnosis of Panic Disorder.
EXCESSIVE NEED FOR CONTROL
There are two primary core beliefs that define the panic-prone personality; (1) an intolerance for uncertainty, and (2) the need to always feel in control of oneself.
Those who endorse this belief system demand predictability in their lives, and place a strong emphasis on being in control of themselves, and their surroundings.
Unexpected changes in schedules, as well the functioning of one’s internal environment (the human body), often causes a state of emotional alarm, triggering a panic attack.
Should these attacks occur within one’s natural environment — such as when grocery shopping or driving — the individual begins to avoid entering into these or similar situations, for fear of experiencing another panic attack, and the feeling of loosing control.
This scenario typically sets the scene for the development of “Panic Disorder with Agoraphobic Avoidance.”
OVER REACTIVE BODY SENSATIONS
Our body’s sympathetic nervous system is responsible for triggering the fight or flight response discussed in our earlier articles.
Biological research indicates that some people are born “sympathetic nervous system dominant.” That is, their body has a genetic tendency to over react to unpredictable or uncontrollable change, which the person then views as stressful in nature.
Those with panic disorder respond more intensely to stimuli such as noise, odors, climate/altitude change, and certain medications.
Thus, these individuals become hyper-vigilant of their surroundings, which include their physiological responses. When a sudden and inexplicable change occurs within their body (heart begins to beat faster, profuse sweating occurs, etc.), an immediate over reaction takes place that involves not only intensely focusing on these physical changes, but also misinterpreting these bodily sensations as “dangerous” — which then triggers even more intense physical changes, culminating in panic.
Despite the fact that those with panic disorder share a variety of similar personality traits, the good news is that this condition is very treatable in a relatively short period of time, often as little as 10-12 weeks, using specific Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) treatment protocols.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. They own the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry in Incline Village. Barry may be reached for comment atvisit to learn more.