What is Panic Disorder?

Panic Disorder is a classification of anxiety disorders. Panic disorder is defined by the recurrence of panic attacks. These panic attacks occur suddenly and without warning for at least one month, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (TR-IV).

It is currently estimated that approximately one to two percent of the population suffer from Panic Disorder.

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a finite period of time in which a person experiences intense fear or discomfort, in a period of unaccompanied fear situations. The frequency and severity of panic attacks related to panic disorder varies a great deal.

Typically a person experiences at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Increased heart rate

  • Sweating

  • Shaking

  • Shortness of breath

  • Choking

  • Chest pain

  • Discomfort

  • Nausea

  • Abdominal distress

  • Dizziness

  • Light-headedness

  • Fear of losing control

  • Feeling of "going crazy"

  • Fear of dying

  • Chills

  • Hot flashes

Often these symptoms occur quickly and peak rapidly, within about ten minutes, and continue for a prolonged period of time in a defined setting. This is different than other anxiety disorders in that the onset is rapid and uncontrollable.

Classifications of Panic Attacks:

There are three main classifications of panic attacks:

  • Unexpected panic attacks are those that have an onset that is not easily identified by an external or internal trigger. The panic attacks are perceived as being spontaneous or out of the blue.
  • Situationally-Bound Panic Attacks are those that occur as the result of a specific situational trigger, whether it is internal or external.
  • Situationally-Predisposed Panic Attacks are similar to the situationally-bound panic attacks, but a person may not have a panic attack after every exposure to a situation, or the panic attack may be delayed and occur after the stimulating situation. 
What Disorders Exist with Panic Disorder?

Panic Disorder is also accompanied by a persistent fear of having panic attacks and concern about how having panic attacks is perceived by others.

Panic Disorder can also be accompanied by Agoraphobia, in which a person has a persistent fear and panic-like symptoms related to embarrassment.

Panic attacks can occur at night, called Nocturnal Panic Attacks, but are less common.

Children may also suffer from panic attacks, and experience many of the same symptoms as adults.

In addition, people with Panic Disorder may be experiencing depression, irritable bowel syndrome, alcohol or substance abuse, problems in general functioning, or problems interacting with others.

How is Panic Disorder Diagnosed?

A person with Panic Disorder may be less likely to seek help given the anxiety and embarrassment associated with the condition. Generally, a diagnosis of Panic Disorder is made after a thorough examination of the patient's medical and life history. If a person with Panic Disorder is experiencing any of the concomitant conditions above, it may make diagnosing Panic Disorder more difficult. Physicians should try to rule out any underlying medical conditions before making a formal diagnosis of Panic Disorder.

How is Panic Disorder Treated?

There has been a lot of research into Panic Disorder and Panic Attacks. The following are recognized as methods of treatment for Panic Disorder.

  • Medication, such as mood stabilizers, serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and anti-anxiety medications may improve mood and treat the symptoms of anxiety and panic.
  • Psychotherapy is often used to develop strong coping skills and ways of managing anxiety symptoms. Further, tools such as exposure therapy can be utilized. Exposure therapy is a gradual and increasing exposure to a particular stimulus or trigger that may be the source of a panic reaction.
  • Lifestyle changes may also decrease the instances of panic reactions. For example, drugs, alcohol, and caffeine may trigger or intensify a panic or anxiety reaction. Aerobic exercise, yoga, and meditation may decrease the likelihood of panic episodes to occur.

If left untreated, panic attacks and Panic Disorder can severely impact a person's daily life.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Agoraphobia

Anxiety

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Social Anxiety

Therapy

Resources for Panic Disorder:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: the leader in advocacy, education, training, and research for anxiety and stress-related disorders. Site has a find-a-therapist by zip code feature as well as numerous articles for patients and professionals.

Anxiety.Org: provides access to cutting edge, evidence-based treatment to all suffering from an Anxiety Disorder regardless of geographic location or financial means.

PsychEducation.org provides a description of treatment modalities based upon current research.

AnxietyOnline describes anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, including Panic Disorders and Panic Attacks, as well as providing articles and resources.