Panic Disorder is a serious condition with one out of every 75 people experiencing it. It usually appears during the teens or early adulthood, and while the exact causes are unclear, there does seem to be a connection with major life transitions that are potentially stressful. There is also some evidence for a genetic predisposition.
The Hallmark of Panic Disorder
A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and any obvious reason. It is far more intense than the feeling of being “stressed out” that most people experience. Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- racing heartbeat
- difficulty breathing, feeling as though you “can’t get enough air
- a terror that is almost paralysing
- dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea
- trembling, sweating, shaking
- choking, chest pains
- hot flashes, or sudden chills
- tingling in fingers or toes (“pins and needles”)
- fear that you’re going to go crazy or are about to die
During a panic attack, these symptoms seem to rise from out of nowhere. They occur in seemingly harmless situations; they can even happen while you are asleep. In addition to the above symptoms, a panic attack is marked by the following conditions:
- it occurs suddenly, without any warning and without any way to stop it.
- the level of fear is way out of proportion to the actual situation; often, in fact, it’s completely unrelated.
- it passes in a few minutes; the body cannot sustain the “fight or flight” response for longer than that. However, repeated attacks can continue to recur for hours.
A panic attack is not dangerous, but it can be terrifying, largely because it feels “crazy” and “out of control.” Panic disorder is frightening because of the panic attacks associated with it, and also because it often leads to other complications such as phobias, depression, substance abuse, medical complications, even suicide. Its effects can range from mild work or social impairment to a total inability to face the outside world.
What Causes Panic Disorder?
There may be a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders; some sufferers report that a family member has or had a panic disorder or some other emotional disorder such as depression. Panic disorder could also be due to a biological malfunction, although a specific biological marker has yet to be identified. For unknown reasons, women are twice as likely to get the disorder as men. Stressful life events can trigger panic disorders. One association that has been noted is that of a recent loss or separation. Physical and psychological causes of panic disorder work together. Although initially, attacks may come out of the blue, eventually the sufferer may help bring them on by responding to physical symptoms of an attack. Sometimes coffee, exercise, and certain medications do, in fact, cause panic attacks. One of the most frustrating things for the panic sufferer is never knowing how to isolate the different triggers of an attack.
Can People with Panic Disorder Lead Normal Lives?
Yes, if they receive treatment. Panic disorder is highly treatable, with a variety of available therapies. These treatments are extremely effective, and most people who have successfully completed treatment can continue to experience situational avoidance or anxiety, and further treatment might be necessary in those cases. Once treated, the panic disorder doesn’t lead to any permanent complications.
Side Effects of Panic Disorder
Without treatment, panic disorder can have very serious consequences. The immediate danger with panic disorder is that it can often lead to a phobia. That’s because once you’ve suffered a panic attack, you may start to avoid situations like the one you were in when the attack occurred. Many people with panic disorder show “situational avoidance” associated with their panic attacks. For example, you might have an attack while driving, and start to avoid driving until you develop an actual phobia towards it. In worst case scenarios, people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia – fear of going outdoors – because they believe that by staying inside, they can avoid all situations that might provoke an attack, or where they might not be able to get help. The fear of an attack is so debilitating, they prefer to spend their lives locked inside their homes. Even if you don’t develop these extreme phobias, your quality of life can be severely damaged by an untreated panic disorder. A recent study showed that people who suffer from panic disorder:
- are more prone to alcohol and other drug abuse
- have a greater risk of attempting suicide
- spend more time in hospital emergency rooms
- spend less time on hobbies, sports and other satisfying activities
- tend to be financially dependent on others
- report feeling emotionally and physically less healthy than non-sufferers
Panic disorders can also have economic effects. Sufferers have reported losing their jobs and having to rely on public assistance or family members. None of this needs to happen. Panic disorder can be treated successfully, and sufferers can go on to lead full and satisfying lives.
How Can Panic Disorder Be Treated?
Most specialists agree that a combination of cognitive and behavioural therapies are the best treatment for panic disorder. Medication might also be appropriate in some cases. A support group with others who suffer from panic disorder can be very helpful to some people. All of these treatments must be outlined and prescribed by a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Credit: American Psychological Association.