Fighting panic and phobia

Aideen developed a fear of flying after the Helderberg air disaster in 1987. She simply could not believe that the pilot was unable to save the plane and the passengers. Every time she had to fly somewhere, she became anxious and terrified. Because the nature of her work required her to fly frequently, the phobia started to have a serious impact on her life.

Fiona Ramsey is a well-known South African actress. She first became aware of her fear of heights at the age of 11. As a stage actress, she is, however, sometimes required to be suspended in the air in a harness on stage. Although she struggles with this problem to this day, she is able to live her life to the full despite her fear.

Both Aideen and Fiona shared their stories with Ruda Landman and psychiatrist Dr Franco Colin on kykNET’s mental health programme ’n Lewe met this week.

What is panic disorder?

This disorder presents when panic attacks recur and the sufferer develops an intense fear of having another attack. The fear is usually present most of the time and seriously interferes with the person’s life, even when the panic attack is not in progress. Panic attacks have various physical symptoms (including heart palpitations, dizziness, nausea and chest pain) and occur when the brain’s normal reaction to a threat – the so-called “fight or flight” reaction – is unexpectedly stimulated for no apparent reason.

The symptoms are so overwhelming and frightening that the person is convinced he/she is going to die. Most people who are living with panic disorder become extremely anxious and may develop irrational fears, known as phobias, about places and situations where a panic attack occurred. For example, a person who had a panic attack while he/she was driving may develop an intense fear of driving.


Panic disorder has no single cause, but involves a combination of biochemical, genetic and environmental factors. Panic attacks can occur when people are severely stressed – when they are snowed under with work, after losing a family member or a good friend, following an operation, or a serious accident or illness. Excessive use of caffeine, cocaine or any other stimulant or medicine can also cause panic attacks.

The symptoms of panic disorder

Panic attacks typically occur while a person is engaged in normal activities such as driving, walking, working or even sleeping. The person will experience sudden frightening and uncomfortable symptoms such as the following:

  • An overwhelming sense of fear lasting for 4–6 minutes
  • A surreal feeling
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Numb hands and feet
  • Hot flushes or chills
  • A fear of losing control, of losing your mind or doing something to embarrass yourself
  • A fear of dying

These symptoms can last for a few seconds or a few minutes.

More about phobias

A phobia is an excessive fear of a specific object or situation. Exposure to a stimulus will almost always cause intense fear or a panic attack. Five types of phobias are distinguished:

  • Fear of animals (like snakes or spiders)
  • Fear of nature (like earthquakes, thunder or water)
  • Fear of blood, injections or injuries
  • Fear of situations (include a fear of travelling in cars, aeroplanes or lifts, or a fear of heights, tunnels and bridges)
  • Other (like avoiding situations that may possibly lead to choking or vomiting)

Certain phobias affect twice as many women as men and the degree to which it affects a person’s daily life will depend on the ease with which the object or situation causing the phobia can be avoided. These phobias usually develop in childhood. The most common childhood phobias are a fear of spiders, the dark, horror movies and being teased.

Learn more

Learn how to deal with panic attacks.

Read our in-depth articles on anxiety disorders and panic disorder.

Ask an expert

If you experience panic attacks or have phobias, post a question on our Cybershrink forum.

Support groups

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG)
Tel: 011 262 6396
Toll free: 0800 567 567
SMS: 31393

South African Federation for Mental Health
Tel: 011 781 1852


Tel: 011 728 1331/1347

Medihelp’s DVD series

The ’n Lewe met series is based on Medihelp’s popular documentary DVD series “Living With”, which deals with 13 different mental health conditions. More information on panic disorder and the effect it has on people and their families who are living with this condition is available on the DVD “Living with Panic Disorder”. Every DVD in the series also includes an information guide containing more information on the condition and details of support groups. DVDs cost R189 each and can be ordered via their website:

(Medihelp and Health24, November 2011)

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