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Predictors of the Development of Phobic Avoidance. [CME]

J Clin Psychiatry 2000;61(8):618-623

Background: Panic disorder and agoraphobia are closely linked. There are indications that uncontrolled panic attacks often lead to the rapid development of phobic avoidance, but our ability to predict which individuals with panic will develop avoidance has been limited. The purpose of this study was to identify independent predictors of the development of phobic avoidance and the time course of that development.

Method: We conducted a secondary analysis of survey data from the community-based Panic Attack Care-Seeking Threshold Study. The presence of panic attacks was confirmed in 97 randomly selected adults from randomly selected households screened using the Structured Clinical Interview of DSM-III-R (SCID). The presence of limited and extensive phobic avoidance was measured using the SCID, while rapidity of development (lag time) was measured as the difference between onset of panic and onset of avoidance. Predictors considered included panic characteristics, psychiatric comorbidity, cognitive appraisal, family characteristics, illness attitudes, symptom perceptions, and coping style.

Results: Thirty-six subjects (37%) had at least mild phobic avoidance, with 81% (N = 29) of those developing the avoidance less than 1 year after the onset of panic attacks. The development of phobic avoidance was associated with the presence of panic disorder (beta = 1.36), the number of comorbid psychiatric disorders (beta = 0.69), and the number of family members and/or friends available to discuss health concerns (beta = 0.87). Further progression to agoraphobia was predicted by the presence of depersonalization during panic attacks (beta = 0.50). Rapid onset of avoidance (panic avoidance lag time < 1 year) was predicted by the perception that depersonalization is a life-threatening symptom (beta = 1.56).

Conclusion: The development of phobic avoidance is closely linked to panic attacks and often develops soon after panic onset. Full-blown panic disorder and psychiatric comorbidity are important in this development. Depersonalization is also key to the development of avoidance and the rapidity of the development.