Panic disorder is a mental illness in which debilitating anxiety and fear frequently arise without any reasonable cause.
The Mayo Clinic defines a panic attack as, “A sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.”
For example, a person could be sitting in class, listening to a lecture, and suddenly begin to become very anxious, feeling his or her heart rate increase, for no apparent reason.
The cause of panic disorder is the occurrence of abnormal activity within the amygdala, a region of the brain that is made of compact neuron clusters; this cultures feelings of fear and anxiety. An attack usually peaks within ten minutes, but some symptoms can last much longer.
Signs and symptoms of panic disorder include the following: sudden and repeated attacks of fear, a feeling of being out of control during panic attacks, intense worrying about when the next attack will happen or a fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past.
Physical symptoms during an attack can be a pounding or racing heart, sweating, breathing problems, weakness or dizziness, feeling hot or cold, tingly or numb hands, chest pain or stomach pain.
Panic disorder affects roughly 6 million American adults and occurs twice as more often in women than men. The disorder begins to present itself in late adolescence or early adulthood, but not everyone who experiences panic attacks develops panic disorder. The tendency to develop panic disorder appears to be inherited.
Some people’s lives can become so restricted by panic disorder that they begin to avoid normal activities, such as grocery shopping or driving. About 30 percent of patients become housebound or are only able to confront certain situations when accompanied by someone he or she trusts.
Agoraphobia, the extreme fear of crowded spaces or enclosed public spaces, tends to accompany panic disorder, but early treatment can prevent it.
Doctors often fail to correctly diagnose panic disorder, which is unfortunate because panic disorder is one of the most treatable of all the anxiety disorders; patients often respond well to medication and cognitive psychotherapy, which can help to change thinking patterns that lead to fear and anxiety.
Panic disorder is often accompanied by other serious problems, such as drug abuse, alcoholism or depression. To most effectively help patients, these conditions need to be treated separately. Most people with depression can be treated with antidepressants, psychotherapy, or a combination of both.
The type of therapy that is most effective in the treatment of panic disorder is cognitive behavior therapy. This method teaches a person different ways of thinking and behaving in reaction to aggravating situations in order to make him or her less anxious and fearful.
Medication can also be useful in treating panic disorders. Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax or Klonopin used to be very popular, but they are highly addictive and often used in suicides, so most psychiatrists have stopped prescribing them.
Certain antidepressants, such as Prozac or Zoloft, can also be used in the treatment of panic disorder. As physicians have moved away from prescribing benzodiazepines, beta blockers, such as propranolol, have become more popular; those medicines are used as needed. Lastly, a mild tranquilizer called Buspar is used daily to treat panic disorder.