Panic disorder is a serious Axis I condition that 1 out of every 75 people experience. The disorder usually appears during late teens or early adulthood¹. Those most notable aspect of panic disorder is recurrent, unexpected panic attacks.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:¹
- racing heartbeat
- difficulty breathing (i.e., not being able to get enough air)
- terror that literally feels paralyzing
- dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea
- trembling, shaking and sweating
- choking and chest pains
- tingling in fingers or toes (“pins and needles”)
- fear that you are going crazy or about to die
Some panic attack victims have reported the sudden feeling of being trapped. [Photo credit Laura Lewis]
These are similar symptoms to the classic “fight or flight” that most people experience when they are in a distressing or dangerous situation. During a panic attack though, these symptoms seemingly come from nowhere.
Panic attacks are marked by the following conditions:¹
- it occurs suddenly, without any warning and without any way to stop it
- the level of fear is out of proportion to the actual situation
- it passes in a few minutes as the body cannot sustain the “fight or flight” response for much longer. Repeated attacks can recur for hours though.
Panic disorder is not inherently dangerous, but can result in clinically signifcant impairments in every aspect of someone’s life. It often leads to complications such as phobia, depression, substance abuse, medical complications, and even suicide. The phobias that develop from panic disorder are usually due to situational avoidance associated with anticipatory anxiety. These phobias are unique in that they develop because someone is fearful of having an attack in a certain environment, not of an actual object or situation. The fear associated with having panic attacks actually makes them appear more frequently, creating phobias centered around attacks.
- are more prone to alcohol and other drug abuse
- have greater risk of attempting suicide
- tend to be financially dependent on others
- report feeling emotionally and physically less healthy than non-sufferers
Most specialists agree that a combination of cognitive and behavioural therapies is the best treatment for panic disorder. Cognitive therapy can help the patient identify possible triggers for the attacks. The behavioural component can consist of interoceptive exposure or systematic desensitization to the actual physical sensations that someone experiences during a panic attack. If someone loses the fear of their panic attacks, it becomes easier to deal with the resultant phobias.
1. APA (2013). Panic Attacks: The Hallmark of a Panic Disorder. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/panic-disorder.aspx?item=2. [Last Accessed 5.12.2013].