What is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is characterized by sudden, uncontrollable and repeated attacks of panic and fear that normally last for several minutes or longer. These episodes are called panic attacks, during which the individual experiences a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. Panic attacks often include intense physical reactions, and the person may feel as if they are having a heart attack or even death.  

Not everyone who experiences a panic attack will develop panic disorder. Some people may have an isolated episode or two in their lifetimes, but having recurrent panic attacks and spending periods of time worrying about more attacks are indicators of having a panic disorder.

Panic disorder affects about 6 million adults in the U.S. and is twice as common in women as in men. Panic attacks often begin in the teenage years or early adulthood. The unpredictability and fear that a panic attack can occur at any time create a high and persistent level of stress. Many people with panic disorder spend an inordinate amount of time worrying and dreading the possibility of having another attack, especially in public. This fear can become so great that the individual becomes discouraged and feels ashamed, avoiding everyday activities and social interactions.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

Panic attacks are intense and come on suddenly. For an episode to be classified as a panic attack it will have at least four of the following signs:

  • Accelerated or pounding heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Uncontrollable shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered
  • A choking feeling
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pains
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Numbness or tingling in the body
  • Feeling of detachment
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear that the individual is dying

While healthcare professionals do not know the exact cause of panic disorder, researchers have found that it does seem to run in families. Currently, they have not discovered whether that is due to genetics or shared environment. There are also those doing research to try and determine if those with panic disorder have brains that are somehow wired to be especially sensitive when responding to fear. What they are in agreement about, though, is that turning to drugs or alcohol in an effort to try and deal with panic disorder almost always makes things worse.

Consequences of Untreated Panic Disorders

Left untreated, panic attacks and the fear of having them can have serious consequences for almost every area of an individual’s life. Complications that may cause or be linked to panic disorder include:

  • Phobias developing, such as fear of driving or taking public transportation
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Problems at work or school
  • Depression
  • Increased risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts
  • Substance abuse
  • Financial problems
  • Agoraphobia, which is not being able to leave home

Treatment is available for panic disorder. Treatment options generally consist of psychotherapy and medications. One or both types of treatment may be recommended, depending on the history of the condition and severity of symptoms.