A small study from the University of Siena in Italy suggests that photophobia—fear of bright light—is associated with panic disorder (PD). Certain features of panic disorder led the researchers to suspect that a fear of light might be connected to panic disorder. Exposure to fluorescent lights has been known to trigger panic attacks, and it is also common for people with panic disorder to shield themselves from the sun by wearing sunglasses or other protective items. To test this theory, the University of Siena team evaluated 24 patients with panic disorder and 33 healthy controls using a standard Photosensitivity Assessment Questionnaire (PAQ). This questionnaire is designed to evaluate an individual’s overall attitude toward the presence of light and examines subjects about questions such as their preference for or dislike of large windows or their reliance on sunglasses when going outside. The results from the control group were essentially neutral; the study revealed a slight preference for light (photophilia) but this preference was not statistically significant. However, among the subjects with panic disorder, the study did reveal statistically significant results: the PAQ responses for these individuals revealed medium to high levels of photophobia.
Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia
Panic disorder is strongly associated with agoraphobia, in which people become intensely afraid of exposure to places and situations that may cause them to have a panic attack. Some people with agoraphobia become housebound out of fear that the only way to avoid triggers for a panic attack is to stay in their homes. An association between bright light and panic disorder could contribute to our understanding of panic disorder and agoraphobia. If future, larger studies demonstrate that bright light contributes to panic attacks, it could help explain why PD sufferers begin to feel threatened by the entire outside world and develop agoraphobia. However, the Italian researchers point out that the size of their study was quite small and does no more than suggest an association between photophobia and PD. Larger studies are necessary to confirm this association and to explore the nature of this association, whether it be cause-and-effect or something else.
Understanding Triggers for Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is an extremely unpleasant condition to live with, and patients in the middle of a panic attack may experience such an intense fear reaction that they believe they are going to die. The experience of a panic attack can be so frightening that the condition can even fuel itself—extreme fear about suffering a future panic attack can be enough to trigger a panic attack Unfortunately, relatively little is known about this condition. For example, we don’t understand what causes certain places or circumstances to trigger a panic attack, and we don’t really understand whether it is a genetic or environmental factor that puts certain people at risk for panic disorder. The good news is that panic disorder often responds well to treatment with either medication or cognitive behavioral therapy. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can be helpful for preventing the onset of a panic attack, while fast-acting tranquilizers can calm someone in the midst of a panic attack. Therapy that helps sufferers to understand their condition and to progressively confront their fears through exposure therapy also has great results for many patients. However, if science can better understand the triggers that make the brain vulnerable to panic attacks (including bright light, if future studies confirm these findings), treatments will be able to better address those triggers and help patients regain control.