What Is Panic Disorder?

What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by unexpected and recurring panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that occurs for no apparent reason and triggers severe physical reactions. Panic attacks can be very frightening, and those experiencing them often fear they are having a heart attack or even dying.

Most people have one or two panic attacks in a lifetime. But if you’ve had several panic attacks and fear having more, you may be suffering from panic disorder.

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A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that occurs for no apparent reason and triggers severe physical reactions.

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The good news? While panic attacks can significantly impact your quality of life, treatment is very effective.

Symptoms

The most common symptom of panic disorder is panic attacks, which usually include several or all of these symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Nausea or abdominal discomfort
  • Sweating
  • Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization) or feeling detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Chills or hot flashes

You may be diagnosed with panic disorder if you experience recurrent panic attacks and at least one of the following for a month or longer:

  • Persistent fear of having additional attacks
  • Worry about the implications or consequences of the attacks
  • A significant change in behavior related to the attacks

Panic attacks can be triggered by a specific situation, a scary thought, or come out of the blue. They typically begin suddenly, without warning, and can strike at almost any time. Often the fear of having a panic attack can trigger an attack. Visits to an emergency room are very common. 

Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia

Panic disorder can also exist with Agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is anxiety about being in places or in situations where a panic attack might develop, where escape might be difficult or embarrassing, and where help is not available. Agoraphobia can be triggered by a variety of situations including being outside the home alone, being in a crowd, standing in line, riding in an elevator, being in a large place like a shopping mall, and traveling in a bus, train, or car.

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Agoraphobia is anxiety about being in places or in situations
where a panic attack might develop…

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Those who deal with Agoraphobia avoid these situations or endure them with marked distress or anxiety, and often require a companion to accompany them outside of the home.

Cause of Panic Disorder

The exact causes of panic disorder and panic attacks are unknown. Stress and certain changes in the way parts of your brain function may play a role. And the disorder often runs in families. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.7% of the adult population in the United States has suffered with panic attacks for at least 12 months, while 4.7% of the population has had panic attacks their entire life.

Treatment of Panic Disorder

Treatment for Panic Disorder with or without Agoraphobia includes a combination of medication and/or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). As I talk about in The Anxiety Solution Series, once you learn skills and tools to stop your thoughts and calm your body, and once you try them out and see that they work, you’ll feel more confident, and your fear of having panic attacks will diminish. Once you’re no longer afraid of having panic attacks, you will have taken a huge step in your journey to overcoming your anxiety disorder.

Panic disorder can be overcome, as these quotes from people before and after treatment show (excerpted from The Anxiety Solution Series):

“A panic attack for me is a moment of ultimate desperation. I usually feel like I’m tottering on the brink. I sometimes get, in addition to all the other symptoms, just sort of a feeling of falling, a feeling of being disconnected, a feeling of almost caving in on myself. I no longer feel like I’m in control. I’m not in control of my thoughts; I’m not in control of my emotions. And I’m afraid that I’m going to basically fly apart, that I’m going to go crazy.”  Writer

“I haven’t had a panic attack in close to a year. At this time last year, I would say my anxiety was probably an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. Now I’d say 2, with occasional peaks, to maybe about 4, but I average about a level 2 anxiety.” — Writer

Famous People Who Suffered from Panic Disorder & Agoraphobia

  • Father of Psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud
  • Actor Johnny Depp
  • Actress Kim Basinger
  • Celebrity Chef and Restaurateur Paula Deen
  • Actor Billy Bob Thornton
  • Musician and Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson
  • Director, writer, actor Woody Allen
  • Millionaire industrialist, inventor, adventurer Howard Hughes
  • Actor, director Nicolas Cage
  • Inventor Nikola Tesla
  • Musician David Bowie
  • Actress, comedienne Lucille Ball
  • Artist Edvard Munch
  • Super Bowl–winning coach, announcer John Madden

 

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