Burning anxiety: New treatment targets smokers with panic disorder

Not everyone who tries to quit the habit on the Great American Smokeout Nov. 18 will have the same odds of success. The 2.4 million Americans who have panic disorders not only smoke at a disproportionately high rate--about 40 percent vs. 24 percent of the general population--they also have a harder time quitting and relapse more often. Another 5 percent of American smokers--2.4 million more people--may develop panic-related symptoms or even panic disorder when they try to quit. Interventions such as nicotine replacement therapy and counseling don't address their symptoms, but new programs pioneered by University of Vermont psychologists are offering hope.

Research suggesting that smoking often precedes panic disorder and may increase risks of developing the malady led Michael Zvolensky, assistant professor of psychology and director of UVM's Anxiety Health and Research Laboratory, to pioneer new prevention and treatment programs now being duplicated at other institutions. Participants learn to deal with their panic-related symptoms through gradual exposure, coping strategies and mentally correcting illogical fears.

"Once conditioning has happened, you can't undo it," says Zvolensky, who initiated the programs. "We don't try to remove panic-related symptoms, but we offer an alternative model to teach people to tolerate and/or alleviate symptoms."

Smokers with panic disorder "appear to be super-motivated to quit," says Zvolensky, "but they also seem to have a harder time quitting, and are more likely to relapse." That's not hopeful news, considering that more than 90 percent of smokers in the general population who quit on their own and up to 85 percent who attend traditional treatment programs relapse within a year.

Zvolensky believes that mental health professionals have largely ignored cigarette smoking. Little is understood of how smoking relates to anxiety disorders other than panic disorder, but studies indicate that a

Contact: Lynda Majarian
University of Vermont

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