Panic disorder

Psychological disorders / Category / Emile Du Toit / May 9th 2014

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is an illness characterized by sudden attacks of terror, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweatiness, weakness, faintness or dizziness.

During these attacks, people with panic disorder may flush or feel chilled; their hands may tingle or feel numb; and they may experience nausea, chest pain or smothering sensations. Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control.

Panic disorder is triggered or worsened by physiological symptoms

A fear of one’s own unexplained physical symptoms is also a symptom of panic disorder. People having panic attacks sometimes believe they are having heart attacks, losing their minds, or on the verge of death. They can’t predict when or where an attack will occur, and between episodes many worry intensely and dread the next attack.

Over time the body then naturally screens for physical changes in the body that might indicate anxiety (i.e. a ‘danger’). Physiological hypersensitivity can often then become the cause of panic attacks as a mild change in the body (e.g. slightly faster heart rate from walking uphill) can be seen as threatening and bring on a panic attack.

When does panic disorder first happen?

Panic attacks often begin in late adolescence or early adulthood, but not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder. Many people have just one attack and never have another. The tendency to develop panic attacks appears to be inherited.

Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep. An attack usually peaks within 10 minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer. Panic disorder is twice as common in women as men.

Panic disorder can become debilitating

People who have full-blown, repeated panic attacks can become very disabled by their condition and should seek treatment before they start to avoid places or situations where panic attacks have occurred.

For example, if a panic attack happens in an elevator, someone with panic disorder may develop a fear of elevators that could affect the choice of a job or an apartment, and restrict where that person can seek medical attention or enjoy entertainment.

Some people’s lives become so restricted that they avoid normal activities, such as grocery shopping or driving. About one-third become housebound or are only able to confront a feared situation when accompanied by a spouse or other trusted person. When the condition includes the fear of open spaces it is called agoraphobia.

Co-morbidity for panic disorder

Panic disorder is often accompanied by other serious problems, such as depression, drug abuse, or alcoholism. When this is the case, these conditions will also need to be treated.

Treatment of panic disorder

Early treatment can often prevent agoraphobia, but people with panic disorder may sometimes go from doctor to doctor for years and visit the emergency room repeatedly before someone correctly diagnoses their condition.

This is unfortunate, because panic disorder is one of the most treatable of all the anxiety disorders, responding in most cases to certain kinds of medication or to CBT. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps to change thinking patterns that lead to fear and anxiety, and is an effective treatment of panic disorder.

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