While most people have occasional periods of anxiety and stress from time to time, some people suffer from severe, debilitating, and unpredictable experiences of fear that cause them to have symptoms such as feeling as if they are having a heart attack, like they have lost their ability to breathe, or even that they are going to die. People that have these kinds of experiences are having panic attacks and may be suffering from a clinical condition called panic disorder.
Panic attacks are defined as a sudden overwhelming feeling of fear that occurs without warning and may erupt when no real danger is present. A panic attack typically lasts less than 10 minutes and dissipates within half an hour. For a professional to make the diagnosis, the patient must describe four or more of the following symptoms during the panic attack:
Shaking or trembling sensations
Smothering sensations or shortness of breath
Discomfort in the chest
Abdominal discomfort or nausea
Feelings of dizziness, lightheadedness, or that the individual is going to faint
Chills or hot flashes
Tingling of the hands, feet, or other body parts
Feeling that the person is unreal, or that things around them are unreal
Fear of dying, fear that they are going to go crazy or lose control
Chest pain or discomfort
Nausea or abdominal distress
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
Chills or heat sensations
A patient with panic disorder experiences panic attacks with some regularity. They may become worried about the possibility of having more attacks, or they may alter their behavior in an attempt to avoid the chance of having an unwanted attack. Sometimes people with panic disorder may avoid social situations or other environments where panic attacks have occurred in the past to try to maintain control of their symptoms. If this avoidance becomes severe, the person may develop a related condition called agoraphobia. In agoraphobia, the person will go to great lengths to avoid certain situations such as shopping malls, elevators, bridges, or airports. In severe cases, the individual may become housebound. Work, school, relationships, and overall quality of life can be severely impacted as a result of either panic disorder or agoraphobia.
If you or a loved one is suffering from symptoms of panic disorder, there are treatments that can help decrease the severity of these symptoms and assist in getting back to normal everyday functioning. Psychotherapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is widely used to control symptoms of panic disorder. Medications are also an effective treatment for panic disorder. Certain medications can partially or completely block panic attacks. This allows the psychotherapist and
patient to work on overcoming anxiety, depression, relationship problems, substance abuse, and other related problems.