Panic disorder is a specific type of anxiety disorder characterized by episodes of heightened anxiety, called “panic attacks.” MedicineNet estimates that, in the United States, over one-fifth of the adult population will experience a panic attack at some time in their lives (2010).
In people with panic disorder, panic attacks continually recur. Because the attacks strike suddenly and without warning, many sufferers of panic disorder live in an almost constant state of fear that another attack will strike at any moment. Consequently, panic disorder is a medical condition that can have great impact on a person’s quality of life.
Panic Disorder Symptoms
The primary symptoms of panic disorder are the occurrence of one or more panic attacks and chronic fear of experiencing another attack. The symptoms of the panic attack itself are emotional as well as physical and may include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- Increased heart rate
- Intense fear and emotional stress
- Stomach cramps
- Sweating or hot flashes.
Panic attacks begin suddenly and can occur during everyday, non-stressful situations. The episodes may last for a few minutes or much longer, but symptoms typically recede within 30 minutes of onset.
A panic attack is a frightening experience that can leave a person feeling anxious long after the attack is over. Living in fear that another attack will strike is the other defining characteristic of panic disorder and, in the long run, that fear can be even more debilitating than the attacks themselves.
Diagnosing Panic Disorder
A physician who suspects panic disorder will order a complete psychological evaluation to determine the severity and frequency of the patient’s symptoms. These evaluations may include detailed and personal questions about the patient’s life circumstances and relationships.
Your doctor will diagnose panic disorder only if you’ve had at least one panic attack. Furthermore, the attack must have been followed by several weeks of elevated anxiety due to fear of experiencing another attack.
Treatment for Panic Disorder
The two approaches for treating panic disorder are medication and psychotherapy. Typically, one or the other is initially prescribed. If symptoms persist, a physician may recommend a combination of medication and therapy.
Many patients with panic disorder are given antidepressants, typically a class of antidepressants known as “selective serotonin uptake inhibitors” (SSRIs). Several SSRIs have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of panic disorder.
Sometimes, people in the middle of a panic attack seek emergency medical attention to deal with their symptoms. In these circumstances, the patient may be given a class of sedative drugs called “benzodiazepines.” These medications can help curb the symptoms of the panic attack.
Some people choose to address their panic disorder with psychotherapy. The aim of the therapy is to explore the patient’s panic triggers and to teach the patient coping mechanisms for handling stressful situations.
Mayo Clinic. (2010). Panic attacks and panic disorder. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/panic-attacks/DS00338.
Dryden-Edwards, R. (2010). Panic attacks (panic disorder). Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.medicinenet.com/panic_disorder/article.htm.