Panic attacks and panic disorder are two different things. A panic attack is a sudden strong feeling of fear that can occur anywhere at any time. Panic disorder is when you’ve had at least two panic attacks and are constantly worried that another one is coming. The incessant concern can create a sense of terror and leave you frightened and overwhelmed even though you are not in any danger.
One in 10 adults in the United States experience a panic attack annually. Attacks usually begin between the ages of 15 and 25 years old. It’s more common in females than in males. About a third of Americans have at least one in their lifetime. However, most of them do not lead to a diagnosis of panic disorder. Only about 3 percent of U.S. adults experience ongoing panic disorder.
Panic Attack Symptoms
When you have a panic attack, you are overwhelmed with a strong sense of anxiety that sweeps through your body. It can feel like you’re losing control, going crazy, or about to die. A panic attack can happen without warning. And when a panic attack strikes, it can be intense and hard to prepare for. But there are a few warning signs or symptoms to look for when you feel a panic attack coming:
- A sense of impending danger
- Uncontrollable sweating
- Trembling, shaking, or chills
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pains
- Pounding heart or increased pulse
- Tightness/dryness in your throat
- Nausea or dizziness
- Feeling faint
Panic attacks typically last for about five to 10 minutes, but the aftereffects can linger for hours. It can feel like a more serious condition, such as a heart attack or a stroke. Because of the similarities, many people who experience a panic attack often end up going to the hospital for evaluation. If you have a panic attack, or feel like you’re about to have one, it’s best to see a doctor immediately. Panic attacks are not dangerous at first, but they can worsen without treatment.
What Causes Panic Disorder?
The root cause of panic disorder is still unknown, but many doctors think it has something to do with how we respond to fear. There is a link between panic disorder and phobias. Many people with panic disorder associate a specific attack with where or what they were doing when it happened. If a person has an attack at a restaurant, it may cause them to avoid that location in the future out of fear that’s what caused the panic. Over time, this kind of behavior can lead to agoraphobia, which is the fear of leaving your home or being in public.
There are few proven triggers for panic disorder, but you’re more likely to develop panic disorder if you have higher stress or difficulty dealing with your emotions. You may also be more susceptible if someone in your family has it. However, it has not been proven to be hereditary. Some health professionals say there is a connection between panic disorder and:
- Anxiety and depression
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Risk of suicide
- Seasonal affective disorder (depression over the winter/holidays)
In some cases, panic attacks can occur even while you’re sleeping. Using drugs and alcohol to deal with panic disorder can lead to symptoms worsening. Some medications can trigger an attack, including some antidepressants. Panic disorder can start following:
- A serious illness or accident
- The death of a close friend or loved one
- Separation from family
- The birth of a baby
People with panic disorder often suffer from depression, but there is no evidence that one condition besets the other. If you’re 40 years of age or older and have panic disorder, you may suffer from depression or another hidden medical condition. It’s important to talk to your doctor to find out what’s going on.
Diagnosing Panic Disorder
There is no lab test for panic disorder. Your doctor may examine you to rule out other health issues. If there are no additional health issues present, and you have had two or more random panic attacks, then you may be diagnosed with panic disorder. If you are diagnosed with it, your physician may recommend you see a psychotherapist. A psychotherapist may recommend a few steps to cope with your anxiety, such as:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches you how to handle unhealthy thoughts and related behaviors that cause panic attacks.
- You may be prescribed antidepressants such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) or Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs).
- You may be prescribed benzodiazepines to help sedate your central nervous system. Benzodiazepines are not used long term because they can become addictive.
- You may be prescribed anti-anxiety medications for short-term relief.
- Your physician may ask you to cut back on your caffeine intake, and limit or eliminate alcoholic beverages. Your doctor may also recommend regular exercise and deep breathing exercises to help provide some relief.
Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work?
Cognitive and behavior therapies are designed to alter how an individual thinks and acts. Cognitive therapy involves helping patients understand how their thinking patterns contribute to their symptoms and how to change their thoughts to reduce or prevent the symptoms. In behavioral therapy, psychiatrists expose patients to the feared place or situation on a gradual basis, teaching them to use relaxation exercises, until the fear is reduced or eliminated.
Group therapy brings patients together to share experiences and draw support from one another. Many patients respond well to treatment, and the success rates among those who receive treatment is often very high, allowing patients to return to productive, fulfilling lives.
When panic disorder strikes, it reaches far beyond its victims. Family members, friends, co-workers and many others suffer as well. But family and friends can potentially be the best help for victims. However, dealing with a relative or friend with panic disorder can be stressful. One of the greatest helps to a friend or loved one with a disorder is emotional support. Family and friends should sincerely listen to the person with the disorder, offering reassurance.
Here are the key points of panic attacks and panic disorder:
- Panic disorder is an overreaction of fear and anxiety to daily life stressors.
- It is a common disorder and can often lead to depression.
- Panic disorders can be disabling because you become so afraid of when the next panic attack may happen that you can’t cope with regular tasks.
- Treatment involves use of anti-anxiety medicines and antidepressants along with cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Family and friends can help you overcome panic attacks and the associated fear of panic disorder.