Panic Disorder starts like this:
- Imagine you’ve just stepped into an elevator and suddenly your heart races, your chest aches, you break out in a cold sweat and feel as if the elevator is about to crash to the ground. What’s happening?
- Imagine you are driving home from the grocery store and suddenly things seem to be out of control. You feel hot flashes, things around you blur, you can’t tell where you are and you feel as if you’re dying. What’s happening?
What is happening is a panic attack – an uncontrollable panic response to ordinary, non-threatening situations. Panic attacks are often an indication that a person has Panic Disorder.
What is Panic Disorder?
A person who experiences recurrent panic attacks, at least one of which leads to at least a month of increased anxiety or avoidant behavior, is said to have Panic Disorder.
Panic Disorder also may be indicated if a person experiences fewer than four panic episodes but has recurrent or constant fears of having another panic attack.
Doctors often try to rule out every other possible physical condition before diagnosing Panic Disorder.
Symptoms of Panic Disorder
A person with a Panic Disorder experiences some or all of these symptoms during their panic attacks:
- Hot or cold flashes
- Choking or smothering sensations
- Racing heart
- Labored breathing
- Chest pains
- Fear of dying, losing control or losing one’s mind
Panic attacks typically last about 10 minutes, but may be a few minutes shorter or longer.
During the attack, the physical and emotional symptoms increase quickly in a crescendo-like way and then subside. A person may feel anxious and jittery for many hours after experiencing a panic attack.
What does it mean to “fear the fear”?
Many people with phobias or Panic Disorder “fear the fear” – they worry about when the next attack is coming. The fear of more panic attacks can lead to a very limited life.
People who have panic attacks often begin to avoid the things they think triggered the panic attack, which often means they stop doing the things they used to do or going to the places they used to go to.
Am I the only one?
You are not alone. It is estimated that 2 percent to 5 percent of Americans have Panic Disorder.
Panic Disorder usually first strikes people in their early 20s. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, can bring on panic attacks.
What causes Panic Disorder?
No one really knows what causes Panic Disorder, but several ideas are being researched. Panic Disorder seems to run in families, which suggests that it has at least some genetic basis.
How is Panic Disorder Treated?
Panic Disorders and panic attacks are treatable and you can develop specific skills that help you with these problems. Treatments for Panic Disorder include psychotherapy and/or a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been found to be the most effective type of therapy for Panic Disorder. It teaches clients to react differently to the situations and bodily sensations that trigger anxiety symptoms.
Clients also learn to understand how their thinking patterns contribute to their symptoms and how to change their thoughts so that symptoms are less likely to occur.
There is some evidence that the combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication may offer some benefits over either one alone.
Healthy living habits may also help people overcome Panic Disorder. Exercise, a proper and balanced diet, moderate use of caffeine and alcohol, and learning how to reduce stress are all important.
Peer support is a vital part of overcoming Panic Disorder. Family and friends can play a significant role in the treatment process and should be informed of the treatment plan and of the ways they can be most helpful.
For more information, visit Nami.Org.