What Parents Need to Know About Panic Disorder

Overview

Panic is something we all experience.  Someone cuts us off in traffic.  We see our toddler start to trip and fall.  The phone rings in the middle of the night.  Panic is the intense and immediate fear of some imminent danger.  People with Panic Disorder experience this type of intense fear at times when no actual danger exists.   These periods of intense albeit unwarranted fear are called panic attacks and those with the disorder experience these kind of attacks repeatedly.  Panic attacks can last for several minutes or more and may include significant physiological symptoms.  The sudden onset and frequency of panic attacks can lead to social isolation and self-restrictions as those with the disorder often avoid situations in an effort to control the uncontrollable attacks.

For some people with Panic Disorder the shame and anxiety experienced because of the attacks can increase the level of fear they experience making the disorder worse and further compromising their ability to participate in their lives and undertake normal activity.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

When someone experiences a panic attack, they can display a wide range of symptoms including:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Heart pounding or palpitations
  • Trembling
  • Shaking
  • Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath
  • Chest pains
  • Feeling as if they are choking or being smothered
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Feeling lightheaded or faint
  • Feeling detached or disconnected from oneself
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes

Symptoms of Panic Disorder

Although panic attacks are one of the key symptoms of panic disorder, not everyone who has a panic attack also has the disorder.  In addition to panic attacks, people with panic disorder also experience anticipatory anxiety.  This is a symptom seen in general anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders that involves increasing and often irrational anxiety about an upcoming event.  For those with panic disorder, this anticipatory anxiety may center on the fear of having a panic attack in specific situations.  It can also be tied to a specific event or situation that is a source of fear for that person.  The third symptom experienced by those with Panic Disorder is phobic avoidance.  This is characterized by the avoidance of places or situations where the person with the disorder fears a panic attack will occur.  One example of phobic avoidance is agoraphobia when people are unable to leave their house because of their fears.

Panic Disorder can severely limit a person’s ability to participate in their lives.  As the fear of having a panic attack increases, they will begin avoiding places that incite that fear.  Over time, this can seriously limit their ability to work, participate in social events, go to school, and perform every day activities like driving or shopping.

Who it Affects

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 6 million American adults have Panic Disorder.  Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with the condition.  While adolescents can experience panic attacks, most diagnosis of Panic Disorder occurs between the ages of 18 and 25.  There also appears to be a significant genetic component as those people with immediate family members who have the disorder are 20 times more likely to have it as well.

Causes

Although Panic Disorder does seem to run in families, researchers are unsure why it develops in some people and not in others.  There is no clear cause or risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing the disorder beyond having a family member who has the condition.

Diagnosis

Panic Disorder is diagnosed based on the frequency of panic attacks, the presence of avoidance anxiety, the level of phobic avoidance experienced, and the impact these symptoms are having on the person’s life.   Many people with Panic Disorder also experience other mental health conditions like substance abuse and depression.  It is important that any co-existing mental health conditions and underlying medical conditions are also diagnosed and treated as part of an overall treatment program.

Treatment

The most common treatment plans for Panic Disorder include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.  Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people change their thought patterns, behaviors, and reactions, can be very effective in treating this disorder.  Through therapy, the person with the disorder learns to control and even eliminate the fear and anxiety that causes the attacks.

Medication can also be a useful tool for treating this disorder.  Anti-anxiety medication and medications used to treat depression are both used in treating Panic Disorder.   In addition to these medications, people with Panic Disorder may also be prescribed medications to help control the physical symptoms that accompany panic attacks.

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