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Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder is a serious condition characterized by repeated episodes of sudden and intense fear, with accompanying symptoms like chest pain, heart pounding, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Its exact cause is unclear, but most doctors feel there is a connection to some major change in a person’s life, graduating from school, getting married or having a child, the death of a parent or spouse. There is also some evidence to support the idea that this disorder may be hereditary. Panic Disorder is not diagnosed unless a person has suffered at least two unexpected panic attacks, followed by one month or more of worry about having another attack. Patients are also predisposed to panic attacks in certain situations.

The attacks may be more frequent and more severe in some individuals than in others. A patient may have repeated attacks for several weeks, or they might have short time periods with severe attacks, followed by periods of calm. People with Panic Disorder often worry about the physical and emotional toll the panic attacks might take on their bodies and minds, and they may be convinced that these attacks are a sign of a severe illness.

There are three kinds of Panic Attacks:

  • The unexpected attack that comes without warning and for no apparent reason.
  • The situational attack that comes on when the patient faces a certain set of circumstances or environment
  • The predisposed situational attack where the patient is likely to have an attack, but does not always have one, a certain situation

The symptoms of panic disorder are very real, and the person experiences such anxiety and terror that it is easy to see how, if left untreated, this disorder can lead to complications like depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.

What are the symptoms?

Talk to a person who suffers from Panic Disorder and they will tell you that their panic attacks make them feel as if they are losing control, going crazy, having a heart attack or suffocating. Symptoms can last for 10 minutes or more and will include four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Rapid heartbeat, palpitations, heart pounding
  • Dizzy or light-headed
  • Sweating, chills or feeling flushed
  • A feeling that everything is unreal and you are slightly disconnected
  • Chest pain or tightness in chest
  • Nausea or feeling as if you might vomit
  • Shortness of breath, choking, feeling of suffocation
  • Shaking or trembling, twitching
  • Feeling as if you have to escape
  • Feelings of doom or being in danger, fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Tingling in hands, feet, arms, legs

How is it diagnosed and treated?

The symptoms of Panic Disorder can mimic other conditions, so your doctor will usually perform a full medication examination to be sure that you are diagnosed and treated for the appropriate condition or combination of conditions. It is important for you to tell your doctor about both the physical and emotional symptoms of your attacks and whether these symptoms are interfering with your normal schedule and function.

The available treatment(s) for Panic Disorder are usually combined to address the various symptoms and specific needs of the individual. A combination of medication and cognitive or behavioral therapy is often the best solution for a patient suffering from this disorder and your doctor will sometimes try several combinations before finding the one that works best for you. Treatment(s) can include:

  • Medications like anti-anxiety medication, antidepressants, SRIs,
  • Stress management, and relaxation techniques, meditation
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy for 8-12 sessions
  • Review and adjustment of exercise and dietary regimen (aerobic exercise and reducing caffeine and some over the counter drugs seems to reduce symptoms on some patients)
  • Psychotherapy

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About 2.4 million American adults (1.7% of the population) have a panic disorder, from which only 10-20% will fully recover

Panic disorder usually develops during the late teens or early twenties, and it is twice as common in women as it is in men.

1 out of 3 people with panic disorder will develop agoraphobia; a fear of being in a situation where escape, or the availability of help, may be difficult to find if the patient, has a panic attack.

If you are in a crisis please call:
1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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