Panic Disorder

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Panic disorder is a type of chronic anxiety disorder in which an individual experiences repeated unexpected attacks of sudden intense fear that something horrible is going to happen for no apparent reason.  These are known as panic attacks.  People with panic disorder spend long periods in constant fear that another attack is going to happen.  If you have had four or more panic attacks and have spent a month or more in constant fear of another attack, you likely have panic disorder.

Panic attacks cannot be predicted.  A panic attack begins suddenly and most often peaks within 10 – 20 minutes.  However, some symptoms may linger for one or more hours.  During a panic attack the person believes they are “going crazy,” having a heart attack, or about to die.  Panic attack symptoms can make your heart pound and cause you to feel short of breath, dizzy, nauseated and flushed.  One may feel fatigued and worn out after a panic attack diminishes.  Before a diagnosis of panic disorder is made people with this condition often have had several visits to emergency rooms and health care providers for symptoms related to a possible heart attack or other physical symptoms.

It is not known what causes panic attacks or panic disorder.  Some research suggests that your body’s natural instinctive fight-or-flight reflex to danger is involved – your heart rate and breathing speed up as your body prepares itself for a life-threatening situation.  Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack.  It occurs twice as often in women than in men, and symptoms usually begin before the age of 25, but can occur well into a person’s 30s.

Symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Fast heart rate, or pounding heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, or face
  • Sweating, chills, or hot flashes
  • Fear of impending doom
  • Fear of dying
  • Nausea or upset stomach

Although panic attacks can significantly affect your quality of life, treatment is very effective, and sufferers can go on to lead full and satisfying lives.  90% of people with panic disorder can expect rapid improvement and relief with the appropriate medication and behavioral therapies.  Unfortunately, many people with panic disorder do not seek treatment.  Without treatment, panic attacks and panic disorder can result in severe complications that affect almost every area of your life such as:

  • Development of specific phobias, such as fear of driving or leaving your home (agoraphobia)
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Problems at work or school
  • Problems with personal relationships
  • Depression
  • Increased risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts

The goal of treatment is to eliminate the symptoms of panic attacks and help re-establish effective functioning in everyday life.  The main treatment options for panic attacks are medications and counseling.  The chief type of psychotherapy used is cognitive-behavioral therapy.  With effective treatment, most people are eventually able to resume normal everyday activities.  Cognitive-behavioral therapies should be used together with medication.  Medications can help significantly reduce symptoms associated with panic attacks.  There are several types of medications that have been shown to be effective.

While panic disorder can certainly benefit from professional treatment, you can help manage your symptoms by following these self-care steps:

  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, stimulants, and some over-the-counter cold medicines
  • Practice stress management and relaxation techniques
  • Eat on a regularly scheduled basis
  • Get regular exercise
  • Get enough sleep
  • Stick to your treatment plan

There are many highly qualified and capable psychiatrists and individual counseling therapists within the tri-counties region with vast experience in treating panic disorder.  Please do not wait to seek treatment.  Do not let the fear of panic disorder prevent you from getting the help you need.