Modern medicine recognizes panic disorder as a serious medical issue separate from the normal stress and anxiety of daily life. However, far too many people who suffer from panic disorder are not aware of what is happening to them when panic starts to build. For this reason, it is important to know the warning signals of panic disorder to ensure affected persons get the right treatment for their condition.
Definition & Facts
Panic disorder is part of a spectrum of health conditions grouped under the header of anxiety disorders. It is characterized by having frequent panic attacks. Panic attacks represent just one symptom among many that can indicate a person is suffering from panic disorder. Panic disorder activates that body's own innate fight-or-flight response at an extreme level, although researchers do not yet understand precisely how or why this happens.
Symptoms & Complaints
- Heart is racing.
- Immobilizing feelings of fear or terror.
- Feeling that the stomach or intestines will explode.
- Inability to take a full breath in or out.
- Trembling and/or shaking.
- Sweating, sudden hot flashes and/or chills.
- Feeling dizzy or nauseated.
- Difficulty concentrating or mind racing.
- Stabbing chest pains that feel like a heart attack.
- Tingling in extremities.
- Feeling that death is imminent.
The most important sign of panic disorder, however, is that any or all of these symptoms come on fairly suddenly and often without any prior warning. Of equal importance is that the individual later often feels like the panic reaction was "extreme" in context with what was actually happening in their life when the attack took place.
Most individuals report that the "panic attack" phase itself lasts about 10 minutes. Because experiencing a panic attack is so terrifying, one common complication is that the individual then begins to feel fearful that the attack will recur. This can cause other anxiety-related conditions, such as agoraphobia, which for panic disorder sufferers may mean not wanting to return to the place where a previous panic attack happened.
Because researchers have not yet been able to pinpoint for certain why some individuals suffer from panic disorder and others do not, what is known about causes for now is still considered more theory than fact. If someone else in the individual's family has had panic disorder, there is a greater likelihood other family members will also. The condition seems more likely to develop during the early adult years and is twice as common in women than in men.
There is also some research data to suggest brain regulation issues may be at the root of panic disorder. If this is the case and the individual has abused drugs or abused alcohol or has recently experienced a severe stressor in their daily life, the likelihood of panic disorder developing then rises.
Diagnosis & Tests
Knowing the major symptoms of panic disorder is vitally important to obtain a proper diagnosis. Because there is no one single test or set of tests that have yet been developed to positively identify panic disorder, doctors and psychiatrists rely on the presence of symptoms to make a diagnosis and prepare recommendations for treatment.
Part of the diagnostic process involves taking the patient's complete personal and extended family medical history. This is especially important to determine if perhaps any other family member may have also struggled with panic and/or anxiety issues. A complete physical examination is also performed to identify if there may be underlying physical causes for the feelings of anxiety and/or panic.
Treatment & Therapy
Once a working diagnosis of panic disorder has been established, the next step is to outline a treatment program to support the individual to heal. Treatment typically includes several components with ongoing monitoring to see which forms of treatment the individual seems to respond to best. Some of the most common treatment recommendations include these:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) teaches the person to identify thoughts that lead to panic and interrupt those thoughts before the panic attack begins.
- Medication. There are certain medicines, such as beta blockers and a certain class of anti-anxiety drugs that can help ease symptoms of anxiety and panic disorder.
- Self-soothing and relaxation therapy. Yoga, meditation, hypnotherapy, breathing exercises, biofeedback and other tools are sometimes recommended to help the individual learn to induce calm-feeling states when anxiety begins to build.
Prevention & Prophylaxis
For individuals who have a personal and/or family medical history that includes anxiety or panic, it can be helpful to reduce caffeine and sugar, get regular and adequate rest, and get regular exercise. Some individuals are able to minimize the effects of anxiety and panic by using these tools and others may be able to stop having the panic attacks altogether.