Panic Disorder

All of a sudden, I felt a tremendous wave of fear for no reason at all. My heart was pounding, my chest hurt, and it was getting harder to breathe. I thought I was going to die.

Twice as many women suffer panic disorder than men. (U.S. Surgeon General’s Report, 1999)

About one in three people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia and 50-60% suffers from a major depressive disorder. Only one of four people with panic disorder receives treatment. (National Institutes of Mental Health)

Roughly 10% of healthy people experience an isolated panic attack in a given year. (U.S. Surgeon General’s Report, 1999)

Panic Disorder is a serious condition that around one out of every 75 people might experience. It is sometimes connected with major life transitions that are potentially stressful: graduating from college, getting married, having a first child, and so on. (APA, Anxiety Disorders: The Role of Psychotherapy in Effective Treatment, 1998)

A panic attack typically lasts for several minutes. Panic attacks are some of the most distressing conditions that people experience. One panic attack is typically followed by others.

What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?

What is Panic Disorder?

Is Panic Disorder Serious?

What Treatment is Available for Panic Disorder?

I. What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?

  • racing or pounding heartbeat
  • chest pains
  • dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea
  • difficulty breathing
  • tingling or numbness in the fingers or toes
  • dreamlike sensations or perceptual distortions
  • terror – a sense that something unimaginably horrible is about to occur and one cannot prevent it
  • fear of losing control and doing something embarrassing
  • fear of dying
  • fear that one is having a heart attack

II. What is Panic Disorder?

  • When one has repeated unexpected panic attacks with severe worry about having others, one is said to suffer from panic disorder.
  • At least 1.6 % of adults in North America experience panic disorder at some time in their lives and 7% will experience at least one panic attack.
  • Panic disorder is different from other anxiety in that panic attacks are sudden, appear to be unprovoked, and are often disabling.
  • Often, a panic attack may lead to irrational fears or phobias about being in situations related to the panic. If someone has a panic attack, for example, while in a crowded store, he or she may begin to avoid similar places in the future. This avoidance and anxiety about another attack may increase and lead to more and more restrictions on a person’s life. At this point, the individual is said to have panic disorder with agoraphobia.

III. Is Panic Disorder Serious?

  • Panic disorder is real and potentially disabling, but it can be treated.
  • People with panic disorder are over 3 times more likely than those with no disorder to be unemployed.
  • Panic disorder is often associated with depression, and with alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Suicide attempts are more frequent among people with panic disorder.
  • Because of the symptoms, people with panic disorder may be thought to have heart disease or other life-threatening illnesses.
  • People frequently go to hospital emergency rooms when they have a panic attack, and extensive tests may be performed to rule out these other conditions.
  • Medical personnel often attempt to reassure the panic attack patient that he or she is not in great danger. These efforts at reassurance can sometimes add to the patient’s difficulties. If physicians use expressions such as ‘nothing serious,’ ‘all in your head,’ or ‘nothing to worry about,’ this may give the incorrect impression that there is no real problem and that treatment is not possible or even necessary.

IV. What Treatment is Available for Panic Disorder?

Cognitive and behavioural therapies are the best treatments for panic disorder. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) combines elements of both cognitive and behavioural therapies and is the most common psychological treatment approach.

Cognitive therapy, helping to change the way a person thinks, can help a person identify internal events (thoughts, images, feelings) that are involved in triggering and perpetuating attacks.

Behavioural therapy focuses on helping a person to go through the symptoms of an attack and helps him or her to recognize that these symptoms are not harmful and need not develop into a full-blown attack.

An estimated 70 to 90 percent of people who receive psychological treatment for panic disorder remain free of panic symptoms for many years; most never need to return to therapy.

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