What is Panic Disorder?

Most people have experienced the symptoms of a panic attack at one time or another, when under extreme stress or in danger:

  • the racing heart beat,
  • sweaty palms,
  • shaky legs or hands,
  • tunnel vision,
  • feeling an overwhelming desire to run away,
  • feeling that something terrible is about to happen.

A panic attack is a normal human response to danger. It is a physiological response that helps people either fight or flee from danger.

In Panic Disorder the panic trigger is over-active and needs to be re-set. Photo: Duchessa, sxc.hu

In Panic Disorder the panic trigger is over-active and needs to be re-set. Photo: Duchessa, sxc.hu

But for approximately 3 to 5% of the population, panic attacks occur when there is no real danger present. This is the primary symptom of Panic Disorder.

Diagnosing Panic Disorder

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (American Psychiatric Association, 1994,) Panic Disorder is diagnosed when panic attacks recur unexpectedly and seemingly out of the blue, and when the panic attacks are followed by at least one month of persistent concern about having additional attacks. Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia is diagnosed when the person experiencing the panic attacks avoids places or situations that he or she believes might cause a panic attack, or places and situations from which escape might be difficult or embarrassing in the event of a panic attack.

The places or situations avoided can be different for different people. Some places that people with Agoraphobia commonly avoid are crowded malls, public transportation, long lines.

Who Has Panic Disorder?

Panic Disorder occurs across cultures. It affects men and women (but more women than men) from all walks of life, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. Panic Disorder usually first strikes in the early twenties or mid-thirties, but young and old people may also be affected.

Some people continue to function well, holding down highly responsible jobs, traveling and having an active family and social life, in spite of all of the anxiety that they feel. The toll taken by Panic Disorder isn’t always obvious to the outsider though the person having panic attacks may be suffering very much.

Some severely limit their lives and avoid places and situations that they fear would bring on a panic attack. Their worlds may become so limited that they are unable to even step outside their front doors. Panic Disorder can affect relationships.

Panic Disorder Treatments are Effective

Panic attacks can be a symptom of other psychological conditions, but those who have Panic Disorder or Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia have some very effective treatment options.

Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia respond exceptionally well to a specific type of therapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The key to successful treatment is to find a specialist in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of Panic Disorder.

Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications are also an option. Some studies suggest you may get a better, longer-lasting benefit by trying cognitive-behavioral therapy without taking medication. However, if symptoms are so extreme that they are interfering with therapy, medication can be combined with therapy. Both treatments are effective, either individually or in combination.

Agoraphobia is seen as a complication of untreated Panic Disorder, and involves additional treatment, so it is important to seek treatment early for Panic Disorder.

There is hope.

This article is for general information only and is not intended as a substitute for personal, medical or mental health advice. Anyone experiencing troubling symptoms should see a medical or mental health professional.

©Lisa C. DeLuca, all rights reserved.  It is a violation of copyright law to reproduce this work on the web or for profit without written permission from the author. This article was originally published on the web in 2008. Please contact the author for permission.

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