Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia

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Jurnal Sains Kesihatan Malaysia 3 (2) 2005: 67-78
Kajian Kes/Case Study
Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Panic Disorder
with Agoraphobia
Kertas ini melaporkan satu kajian kes klinikal keberkesanan Rawatan
Kognitif–Tingkahlaku (RKT) kecelaruan panik berserta agorapobia di dalam
seting klinik psikologi kesihatan tempatan. M.N., seorang pemuda berusia 24
tahun, bermasalah mimpi ngeri, jantung berdebar, berpeluh, rasa menggigil
dan ini berlarutan sejak satu setengah tahun yang lepas. Ini menyebabkan
klien bimbang untuk pergi ke tempat yang agak sesak seperti ke stesen bus,
pasar malam, pasaraya, masjid dan takut berseorang di tempat yang asing.
Kajian kes ini berasaskan reka bentuk ABC yang mana subjek dinilai pada
tiga fasa rawatan yang berbeza; pra-rawatan, pertengahan rawatan dan pos-
rawatan. Empat ujian piawaian telah digunakan iaitu Beck Anxiety Inventory
(BAI), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), Anxiety Scale of Minnesota Multiphasic
Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2) and State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI).
Subjek telah memberi respon positif sepanjang 12 sesi rawatan intervensi
yang berasaskan terapi model RKT tingkah laku dan ini boleh diperhatikan
dalam pencapaian skor minimum setiap ujian psikologi yang ditadbirkan.
Aplikasi pelbagai strategi tingkah laku dan kognitif menjadi lebih berkesan
disebabkan oleh kebolehan pemahaman pesakit dan tahap kerjasamanya.
Beliau telah memberi respon baik dalam pendedahan imageri berserta
pendedahan beransuran in-vivo dan akhirnya berjaya pergi ke pusat-pusat
membeli belah, menggunakan lif di Menara Kuala Lumpur, berjaya ke pasar
malam dan menggunakan pengangkutan awam.

Kata kunci: Kecelaruan panik, agorapobia, Rawatan Kognitif-Tingkahlaku,
kajian kes klinikal
This paper reports a clinical case study on the effectiveness of Cognitive-
Behavioral Treatment (CBT) in treating panic attack with agoraphobia in a
local health psychology clinic. M.N., a 24 year old male, complained of
nightmares, heart palpitations, sweating, tremors and fearful feelings for the

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past one and a half years. He felt anxious about going to crowded places such
as bus stations, night markets, supermarkets, and mosques and being left alone
in any place which he was not familiar with. This case study adopted an ABC
design whereby the subject was assessed at three different phases: pre-treatment,
mid-treatment and post-treatment. Four standard assessment measures were
administered: Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI),
Anxiety Scale of Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2)
and State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI). The subject responded well to 12
sessions of intervention employed in the study based on CBT model and this
could be noticed by minimal score on the entire psychological test administered.
The application of behavioral and cognitive strategies became more effective
due to patient’s ability to understand and also due to his cooperative behavior.
He responded well to imagery exposure and in-vivo gradual exposure and
successfully went to shopping malls, used lifts at Kuala Lumpur Tower, went to
night markets and used public transport.

Key words: Panic disorder, agoraphobia, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,
clinical case study
Panic attack can be defined as a sudden onset of intense fear or discomfort
associated with a cluster of physical and cognitive symptoms, which occur
unexpectedly and recurrently, such as pervasive apprehension about panic
attacks, persistent worry about future attacks, worry about the perceived
physical, social or mental consequences of attack, or major changes in behavior
in response to attacks. Agoraphobia consists of a group of fear of crowded
places such as going outside, using public transportation, and being in public
places that causes serious interference in daily life.
Panic disorder, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders, 4th ed. (DSM-IV), affects 1 to 3 percent of the general population at
some point in their lives (Kumar 2003). Panic disorder often occurs in patients
with agoraphobia (26 percent) or social phobia (33 percent), which includes
widespread anxiety about social interaction and performance (Roy-Byrne 1999).
Panic disorders associated with high level of social morbidity and health care
service utilization. Epidemiological studies throughout the world indicate a lifetime
prevalence rate between 1.5 and 3.5%. The use of a multi component CBT strategy
for panic disorder with agoraphobia is one of the preferred therapeutic
approaches for this disturbance (Vincelli 2003). Controlled studies have
demonstrated that CBT was superior to other treatments for panic where 85% of
patients were panic-free at post treatment and improvements were maintained at
follow-up (Carlos 1998).
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CBT typically includes 10 to 15 sessions of treatments that help people
change the thoughts and behaviors that lead to anxiety. It also helps them
identify the particular sensations that they associate with fear – sensations
such as a rapid heartbeat, paralyzing terror and dizziness. The patients learn how
to respond to fear in order to minimize or eliminate symptoms and treatments
usually consist of one-on-one sessions (Schmidt 2002). CBT includes many
techniques, such as cognitive restructuring, exposure in vivo, exposure through
imagery, breathing retraining, and applied relaxation is a widely used and highly
effective treatment for panic disorder. Meta-analyses have found that specialized
cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, and combined CBT were superior to general
emotionally supportive psychotherapy in patients with panic disorder (Shear
2001). Also, meta-analyses support the efficacy of CBT in improving panic
symptoms and overall disability. In addition, CBT appears to be effective over
the long term period (Gould 1995). Furthermore, CBT results in a longer lasting
benefit than drugs, and is more effective than relaxation therapy alone (Clark
1994). However, in Malaysia the application of CBT seems is not given priority as
one of the main treatment approach for panic attack. Therefore, this paper reports
a single clinical case study on the effectiveness of CBT treating panic attack with
agoraphobia in a local psychological setting.
M.N., a 24 year-old male, came to a health psychology outpatient clinic after
feeling fearful and being unable to sleep because of nightmares. His main
complaints were nightmares, heart palpitations, sweating, tremors and fearful
feelings for the past one and half years. His tremors usually lasted for 15 min
which gradually resolved on their own.
Previously well until January 2004, M.N. suddenly woke up from his sleep after
having a nightmare. He remembered that night; he went to sleep as usual in his
bedroom alone and dreamt of a man wearing white cloth who warned him that his
life would be in danger because many people wanted to harm him. As soon as he
woke up, he felt nervous, hyperventilated, gasped for air and could not fall
asleep anymore that night. Since then he frequently experienced irrational fearful
feeling almost everyday. He described the fearfulness as occurring suddenly
without any preceding signs or any precipitating factors. The anxiety feeling
was associated with awareness of his own heartbeat which he worried might
indicate any cardiac complications. He thought that he was going to die whenever
he felt these experiences. Simultaneously, he experienced dizziness, sweating
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especially on both palms, and shortness of breath, chest discomfort, tremors
and cold. The symptoms occurred in episodes at no particular time reaching a
maximum within 10 min and resolving after 15 min. In between attacks he was
completely back to his normal life.
M.N.’s symptoms gradually became worse where it occurred 2 to 3 times a
day until he became worried that these symptoms would recur at any time.
Because of this, he felt anxious about going to crowded places (e.g. using bus to
go to town or being left alone at any places which he is not familiar with). He
preferred to be with his students or use his own motorbike rather than using
public transport to go to town. After nearly one year of experiencing the anxiety,
he became upset because of his disabilities, lost interest in mixing with his
friends, experienced early awakening in his sleep (e.g. he woke up at about 4
a.m.) and could not fall sleep again. He felt guilty if he had negative ideas
towards other people (e.g. looking at a dirty man on the street). However, he had
no history of hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of appetite, loss of weight,
poor concentration or indecisiveness. The symptoms became worse until he
decided to shift to Kuala Lumpur believing that it would disappear by itself but
it did not.
He had no hallucinations, delusions, ideas of reference, hearing his own
thought or derealisation and no anxiety to any specific cues or situations. M.N.,
denied having any intrusive thoughts to perform any behavior in order to reduce
his anxiety. Furthermore, no orthopnea, paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea or reduce
effort tolerance, dysphagia, heat intolerance or blurring of vision. About his pre-
morbid personality, M.N. described himself as a friendly, jovial person and easily
mixed around with people. He likes outdoor activities such as football, fishing
and catching birds. M.N. was not too concerned about cleanliness and
The onset of M.N.’s anxiety state began around the time his brother got married
and shifted to Kuala Lumpur. Previously he was very close to his brother, they
stayed together for several years and he became very dependent towards his
brother. Several times he mentioned that he was half his brother. After his
brother’s departure, he started to feel empty inside and insecure. He also started
to feel anxious about being alone, unable to make decisions and could fall asleep.
For the past one and a half years he had been very fearful, sensitive to bodily
sensations and started to misinterpret normal situation and body sensation as
life threatening events. He started avoiding crowded places and outdoor activities
and still felt very anxious because of his internal stimuli. This led him to feel
vulnerable and unable to cope. M.N.’s fright of certain sensations (e.g. increased
heartbeat during exercise); resulted in him being hyper vigilant and repeatedly
scans his body sensation. This internal focus of attention allowed him to notice
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sensations which many other people would not be aware of. Once noticed, these
sensations were taken as further evidence of the presence of same serious
illness. The agoraphobic believed that if he played football, his heart would beat
faster and he would collapse and die. By monitoring automatic thoughts and
behavior, three things associated with his thinking maintained the Panic Disorder
with Agoraphobia.
His anxiety disorders might be exaggerated by irrational beliefs concerning
the consequences of facing up to the feared or difficult situation.
He was prone to making catastrophic misinterpretations of his symptoms,
thereby making him more frightening and increasing his panic. He became
acutely sensitized to his body, noticing minor bodily changes upon which
he focused. He was constantly looking for these changes, especially in
situations which have previously been difficult.
Because he avoided this situation, he was unable to overcome his irrational
beliefs since he was never proved wrong.
Examples of automatic thoughts at the moment when he was feeling
particularly anxious and having the attack: he was thinking that he may be going
to die, fearing that he was going to get a fatal illness, fear of losing control and
collapse and sometimes fear of getting an accident and heart attack. External
stimuli (e.g. public transports, lift, and supermarket) and internal stimuli (e.g. his
own thoughts, images) and too much sensitivity to body sensations made M.N.
became more anxious and developed a panic.
Basically, psychological intervention employed in this case study was integrated
cognitive and behavioral treatment model which is normally recognized as
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The goal of this single case study which
employed ABC design was to gradually reduce anxiety level, helping subject
controlling panic attacks, and agoraphobic avoidance. Subject was assessed at
three different phases: pre-treatment, mid-treatment and post-treatment. The
following standard psychological assessment tools were administered to monitor
client progress in psychological intervention at three different intervention
Daily Schedule of Automatic Thoughts Records Form (DRAT)
M.N. was given a Daily Schedule of Automatic Thought (DRAT) to help identify
negative thoughts and to monitor his own thoughts and progress. Furthermore
this would help M.N. to challenge them, and to substitute more suitable and
positive thoughts.
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Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI)
Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) was used to monitor progress at the initial, middle
and final stages of the therapy and at the same time elicited the negative automatic
thoughts. The BAI consists of 21 descriptive statements of anxiety symptoms,
which are rated on a 4-point scale ranging from 0 to 3. The maximum score is 63
point. The BAI total score ranges are recommended for interpreting the intensity
of self-reported anxiety (Beck & Steer 1993a). Total scores from 0-7 points are
considered to reflect a minimal level of anxiety; scores of 8-15 indicate mild
anxiety; scores of 16-25 reflect moderate anxiety; and score of 23-63 indicate
severe anxiety.
Beck Depression Inventory (BDI)
Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) was administered to monitor M.N. depression
level. The BDI was administered at the initial, middle and final stages of the
therapy. Beck Depression inventory consists of 21 descriptive statements of
depression symptoms, which are rated on a 4-point scale from 0 to 3. The maximum
score is 63 points. The BDI total score ranges are recommended for interpreting
the intensity of self-reported depression (Beck & Steer 1993b). Total scores from
0-9 points are considered to reflect a minimal level of depression; scores of 10-16
indicate mild depression; scores of 17-29 moderate depression; and score of 30-
63 indicate severe depression.
Anxiety Scale of the MMPI-2 Supplementary Scale
This Scale was developed to measure the level of anxiety as well as personality.
In general, T scores greater than 65 should be considered high scores and T
scores below 40 should be considered low scores. The Anxiety Scale has 39
items. The contents of the items fall under four categories; thinking and thought
processes negative emotional tones and dysphoria, lack of energy and pessimism,
and malignant mention (Hathaway & McKinley 1989).
State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI)
The STAI was developed by Spielberger et al. (1970) and consists of 20 items for
each form, descriptive statements of anxiety symptoms, which are rated on a 4-
point scale ranging from 1 to 4. The scale yields measures of general (trait) and
situational (state) levels of anxiety.
Psycho-education of panic attack with agoraphobia
According to M.N., he never understood what caused his problem. So, it was
useful to teach and explain M.N.’s presenting problem: process, causes and the
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maintaining factors. The psycho-education of panic attack was explained using
Clark’s (1986) Model of Panic Attack and he was able to explain his own problem
by using the model.
Behavioral Experiments
M.N. was requested to do voluntary hyperventilation so that he might experience
the same effects during panic attack. Breathing techniques gave M.N. the
experience of a panic attack. The purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate
to M.N the occurrence of symptoms and to correct his own catastrophic
Relaxation Techniques
M.N. was taught to practice Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) and Breathing
Control. M.N. performed the relaxation techniques twice a day, in the morning
and evening. Sometime he also practiced the methods when he felt tense in
certain situation. According to Powell & Enright (1991) PMR can reduce anxiety
by lowering muscle tone and autonomic arousal and this will clear the mind of
worrying thoughts by concentrating on these procedures.
Eliciting Automatic Thoughts
Several techniques to elicit M.N.’s negative automatic thoughts were used. For
example a Daily Records of Automatic Thoughts (DRAT) form, mental imagery,
direct questioning, and ascertaining the meaning of event. By using DRAT,
M.N. also learned to monitor and elicit his own negative automatic thoughts. In
the few initial session, therapist helped M.N. to identify the thoughts during
Modifying Automatic Thoughts
The purpose of restructuring automatic thoughts is to replace negative thoughts
with more realistic and positive thoughts. The main methods used to search for
more realistic and positive alternatives to negative automatic thoughts by using
Verbally Challenging their validity. The aim of therapy was to teach M.N. to begin
to challenge his irrational ideas and images and helped him developed a more
logical and positive interpretations, by identifying what type of thinking error he
made. M.N. learned to challenge and modify his negative automatic thoughts. He
was also able to monitor his thoughts and modified to more rational way without
having to write them on paper. At one stage he asked “why I have more negative
thoughts rather than positive thoughts”. This indicates the awareness of his
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Thought-Stopping Technique: M.N would shout “STOP!” very loudly and clap
his hands loudly simultaneously. Sometime M.N. would count people on the
field while he was playing football because of his thought “I’m going to get
panic attack”. Coping Card Technique: Patient would read the coping card when
he gets the thoughts (e.g. I have good health).
Imagery Gradual Exposure
It is similar to In-Vivo Gradual Exposure, but this time M.N. was asked to imagine
the situation, for example e.g. supermarket, public transport and lift. This was
practiced before implementation of In-Vivo Gradual Exposure.
In-Vivo Gradual Exposure in Lift
In Vivo Gradual exposure was carried out because M.N. was State (situational)
anxious. If the patient was Trait dependent, normally cognitive restructuring
followed by systematic desensitization was more useful. With guidance M.N.
learned to climb the hierarchy gradually in lift, starting at the bottom one at a
time. The same In-Vivo Gradual Exposure was also used in crowded places
(Pharmacy). Finally M.N. was able to cope with situation that he avoided like
night market, lift, bus stop and other crowded places. During the In-Vivo Gradual
Exposure, each stage of hierarchy, the therapist carefully monitored the level of
After a few attempts M.N. successfully achieved the target (e.g. first step: walk
near to the lift) during gradual exposure, the therapist stops the techniques and
focused on other methods of psychotherapy. At one session the therapist asked
M.N. to go into a pharmacy and sat for 10 minutes. He was able to sit in the
pharmacy and relaxed. He also successfully used the lift few times when directed
by the therapist. At first time patient asked to do flooding he felt quite anxious
(10%) however his level of anxiety reduced after the flooding was repeated for 5
Relapse Prevention program
Relapse means the return of symptoms after initial improvement. M.N. was thought
to spotting risk situation and always be preplanning ahead by modeling and
rehearsal. He also has specific skills like PMR, breathing control, gradual exposure
and positive self-talk skill to react or to face anxiety-provoking situation.
Meanwhile he also thought to learn from lapse because someone who does not
learn from lapses is destined to repeat the same behavior again. M.N. also can
react constructively (e.g. do not beat up himself emotionally) because internal
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thoughts can create negative feeling and can cause relapse. He also thought to
avoid catastrophic reactions or in other word keeping things in perspective by
avoiding overreact to small mistakes. Finally by using maintenance road map
would help M.N. to spot the risk factor and be prepared ahead. However, he was
also advised to seek help and refreshing his skill again with clinical psychologist.
The results of psychological intervention by Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy (CBT)
are shown in Table 1. M.N. coped with his anxious feeling. He was able to progress
positively with the psychotherapy sessions and reduced his levels of anxious
significantly. Although in certain situation he had anxious feeling but was able
to distract these thoughts and did not end up with a panic attack. He learned to
monitor his own negative thoughts and understand the contribution of negative
thoughts to the panic attacks. The patient’s depression level based on BDI was
reduced after the few initial sessions. Although patient has mild depression
because of the present symptoms, his depression reduced to minimal range after
he started to learn about his problem and understood that his problem could be
overcame via psychological treatment.
TABLE 1. The results of psychological intervention from three different phases
(1st session)
(6th session )
(12th session)
(Severe Anxiety)
(Mild Anxiety)
(Minimal Anxiety)
(Mild Depression)
(Minimal Range)
(Minimal Range)
State Anxiety
(Above Min)`
(Below Min)
(Below Min)
Trait Anxiety
For State Anxiety, the score above the Min 35.72 and S.D. 10.4 indicated
M.N.’s State Anxious and the score above Min 34.89 and S.D. 9.19 for Trait
Anxiety indicated Anxious Traits. The result showed that M.N. was not Trait
Anxious but he was Anxious in specific situation. During treatment, his level of
state Anxiety reduced below the Min level. M.N. obtained raw score of 21/39 and
the T-Score equal to 65. His result reflected distress, anxiety, discomfort and
general emotional upset. These high scores also tend to indicate inhibition and
over control, incapability of making decisions without hesitation and uncertainty,
conformity and being easily upset in social situations.
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As a psychological treatment program both behavioral and cognitive techniques
were used. Both approaches have their own advantages and each approach
addresses the specific presenting problems of client. During the initial stages
therapy focused on psychological education of M.N.’s presenting problem. The
application of behavioral and cognitive became easier because of M.N.
demonstrated willingness to learn about his problem and cooperated very well
with therapist. He was quite, relieved, when therapist explains the panic attack
model suggested by Clark (1986). He mentioned that “now he understood his
problem” and the following sessions he drew the cognitive model of panic
attack on cardboard and showed to the therapist.
Regarding the In-Vivo Gradual Exposure, M.N. was at just reluctant to co-
operate. After, he went through Imagery Exposure; he agreed to try In-Vivo
Gradual Exposure step by step. He tried and successfully went to shopping
malls, used lifts at Kuala Lumpur Tower, went to night markets and used public
transport. M.N. was interested to discuss automatic thoughts, that he identified
on the DRAT forms. In the first few sessions, M.N. would sit together with the
therapist to discuss, challenge and restructure the negative thoughts to positive
thoughts. He became quite skillful at changing the negative automatic thoughts.
He also claimed that, he was able to make decisions by himself. He also developed
BDI and BAI were used successfully to monitor the progress of M.N. The
BDI and BAI showed that the level of M.N.’s depression and anxiety decreased.
M.N. was able to monitor his improvements by completing the questionnaire.
Every time M.N. completed the BDI and BAI he would say, “I am okay”, whenever
he compared his results with those scores when he first commenced therapy.
Administration of STAI Form provided valuable information about M.N.’s anxiety.
M.N. was state anxious but not trait anxious. He being state anxious, rather then
trait anxious gave the therapist the opportunity to implement In-Vivo Gradual
Exposure. The administration of the Anxiety Scale the MMPI-2 provided other
general information about M.N.’s personality and his anxiety. The Daily Record
of Automatic Thoughts also gave specific data about M.N.’s negative automatic
thoughts. The Behavioral Interview and assessment also gave a clear picture
about M.N.’s problem and provided suitable information to formulate the case.
The therapist established good rapport with M.N. He became very co-
operative and open-minded about the psychotherapy processes. He was very
punctual and never gave excuses about his homework. Sometime he would do
extra homework, like drawing the model of panic attack. This good therapeutic
relationship helped the therapist and patient to implementing all behavior and
cognitive treatment as planned early. M.N. would give his feedback and ask
about the therapist opinion about the therapeutic process. M.N.’s co-operation
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