What Is Panic Disorder?

We have all experienced momentary feelings of intense fear or panic at some point in life. Whether it’s that moment when your heart races after narrowly avoiding an accident or the split-second of terror you feel when your train suddenly lurches forward, these feelings are a normal and natural response to perceived danger.

For most people, these feelings are usually short-lived. However, for some people, these feelings of anxiety and fear become a constant and overwhelming presence in their lives, often occurring without any clear or apparent trigger. This is known as panic disorder.

Panic Disorder Symptoms

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, unexpected, or unprovoked panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden period of intense fear or discomfort that reaches its peak within minutes, and during which time four or more of the following symptoms develop:

  • Heart palpitations or an accelerated heart
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Chills or heat flashes
  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensation)
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (feeling detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying

People with panic disorder often live in fear of the next panic attack, feeling that they are unable to control or predict when or where it will happen. This can lead to avoiding places or situations where attacks have occurred in the past, or where the person perceives that escape might be difficult.

As a result, people with panic disorder can experience significant interference in their day-to-day lives. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 5 percent of U.S. adults struggle with panic disorder at some point in their lives.

Causes of Panic Disorder

The exact cause of panic disorder is not known, but several factors have been found to play a role in its development, including:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Changes in brain chemistry or structure
  • Abnormalities in the autonomic nervous system
  • Extremely stressful life events
  • Cognitive biases or distortions
  • Personality traits
  • Excessive anxiety

Treatment for Panic Disorder

If you are experiencing symptoms of panic disorder, it is crucial to seek professional help. A mental health professional can conduct a comprehensive assessment to determine whether your symptoms are due to panic disorder or another underlying condition like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), agoraphobia, or social anxiety disorder.

Once a diagnosis has been made, your provider will recommend a treatment plan that may include a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Medications such as antidepressants and anxiolytics are often used to help manage the symptoms of panic attacks and minimize their interference with daily life.

Psychotherapy, on the other hand, seeks to address the underlying causes of panic disorder by helping you identify and change negative thought patterns and beliefs that lead to panic attacks. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy are the two most common types of psychotherapy used to treat panic disorder.

Coping Strategies

In addition to professional help, there are several things you can do on your own to manage the symptoms of panic disorder.

Identify your triggers: Keeping a journal can help identify patterns and triggers for your panic attacks. Once you know what sets off an attack, you can avoid or prepare for the situation.

Practice relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga, or meditation can help to calm your mind and body when you are feeling anxious.

Challenge negative thinking: Negative thoughts and beliefs can lead to panic attacks. Learning to challenge and reframe these thoughts can help reduce your anxiety and prevent attacks.

Exercise regularly: Exercise has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety and improve overall mood.

Get adequate sleep: A lack of sleep can worsen anxiety and increase the risk of panic attacks. Make sure to get enough rest each night.

The Bottom Line

Panic disorder is a serious mental disorder that can cause significant interference in your life. It can also lead to serious complications like agoraphobia, depression, and an increased risk for heart disease if left untreated.

If you are experiencing symptoms of panic disorder, it is vital to seek professional help. With treatment, most people with panic disorder can find relief from their symptoms and live healthy, productive lives.

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