Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that causes panic attacks, which are sudden feelings of terror for no apparent reason. Panic attacks can make people feel like they are spinning out of control, having a heart attack or even dying.
Panic disorder is more common in women than in men and typically starts in early adulthood.
Most people do have a few panic attacks during their lifetime, but these go away once the stressful situation is over. However, if a person has recurrent, inexplicable attacks of panic and spent long periods in fear of the next panic attack, they may have panic disorder.
Panic attacks aren’t life-threatening in themselves, but they can be terrifying and do significant damage to the quality of life.
People may eventually be so afraid of having another panic attack that they may:
- Develop a fear of going outdoors, driving or running errands
- Experience psychosomatic illness or recurrent small illnesses like fevers and chills
- Withdraw entirely from social interactions that significantly impair the ability to succeed at school, at work or in relationships
- Develop depression or other psychiatric disorders
- Begin to abuse alcohol or other substances
- Think about or attempt suicide
Seek treatment immediately if you feel worthless or are thinking of ending your life.
What causes panic attacks is unknown, but factors including genetics, major stress, a sensitive or highly emotional temperament, and changes in brain function are all thought to play a role.
While panic attacks may initially come on suddenly and without warning, over time they tend to be triggered by certain types of situations.
Signs & Indications
People with panic disorder experience overwhelming feelings of terror with no identifiable cause, or disproportionate to the situation they are in (for example, when faced with a daily activity like going to a shop).
They may experience physical signs including:
- Elevated heartrate
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Dizziness, feeling faint or lightheaded
- Sweating profusely
- Trembling or shaking
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Numbness or a tingling sensation
People experiencing a panic attack may feel:
- An overpowering sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of losing control or dying
- Feelings of detachment or unreality
If you have signs of a panic attack, seek medical help as soon as you can. While they are not in themselves dangerous to you, they are hard to manage alone and may worsen if left untreated. Panic attacks can resemble other serious health issues (like a heart attack). It’s critical to be evaluated by your physician to rule out any other cause.
Most people do recover with treatment, which can be very effective.
Therapy can teach you how to recognise and change your thinking patterns before an attack begins. Medicines can also help.