Panic Disorder

What is Panic Disorder?

A panic attack is a sudden and sometimes intense period of anxiety that is characterized by a storm of somatic symptoms and worrisome thoughts. The attack starts suddenly and usually reaches its point of highest intensity in about 10 minutes, after which the symptoms begin to slowly subside. Typical symptoms include:

  • racing or pounding heart
  • profuse sweating
  • shaking or trembling
  • feeling short of breath
  • pain in the chest
  • abdominal pain, distress, or nausea
  • hot flashes or chills
  • dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
  • numbness or tingling in the hands, fingers, or feel
  • fear of losing control or going crazy, and
  • fear of dying.

When a panic attack occurs, some individuals think that they are having a heart attack and many of the common symptoms of panic often are associated with cardiovascular disease. If an individual has repeated panic attacks that occur unexpectedly and worries about having more attacks, worries about what the panic attacks mean, or behavior changes as a result of having panic attacks, then a diagnosis of Panic Disorder is warranted.

How common is Panic Disorder?

Between 1.5% and 3.5% of the general population suffers from Panic Disorder. The disorder occurs much more frequently in adults than it does in children or adolescents. In many instances, those with Panic Disorder begin to avoid many places out of fear that panic attacks will occur. In this case, the individual is said to suffer from Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia (see Agoraphobia for a description of this pattern of behavior).

What causes Panic Disorder?

The cause of Panic Disorder is not known although it is always advisable to consult a physician to be sure that there are no medical reasons for these somatic symptoms. Panic Disorder does “run” in families although at least half of all individuals with Panic Disorder do not have a relative with the disorder. There are environmental factors that influence the emergence of panic disorder as well. Stressful life events often are associated with the development of Panic Disorder. Such stress might be the result of illness, other emotional distress, or other environmental factors such as job-related difficulties.

How is Panic Disorder treated?

Empirical evidence supports the use of behavior therapy strategies and certain medications. Behavior therapy consists of exposure treatment that is directed at the somatic and emotional symptoms of panic. If the individual also avoids situations because of fear of panic, exposure to those places also is included as part of the treatment plan.