Panic Disorder

What is a panic disorder?

To be diagnosed with panic disorder, a person must first present recurrent, unexpected Panic Attacks followed by at least 1 month of persistent worring about having another Panic Attack, and worry about possible consequences of the attacks, or significant behavioral changes related to the attack. A person must have at least 2 unexpected panic attacks to be diagnosed with panic disorder but it is usually considerably more. People with Panic Disorder experience situationally predisposed Panic Attacks most frequently (i.e. those more likely to occur on exposure to the situational trigger but they do not always occur immediately (attacks more likely to occur an half an hour later).

Frequency of Attacks: The frequency and severity of panic attacks vary. Some people may have frequent attacks (e.g. once a week) that occur regularly for months at a time while others may experience short spurts of more frequent attacks (e.g. daily for a week) and then weeks or months without any attacks at all.

Impact of the disorder: If you or someone you know suffers from panic disorder, please remember it can alter a person 's personality and behavior. Some family members may not understand what the person is going through. It is hard to understand why someone who was once active, outgoing, and independent suddenly becomes withdrawn, dependent, and manipulative. Without treatment for the individual and counseling for the family, panic disorder can cause a family great emotional distress.

What are Panic Attacks?

A panic attack is a period of time when a person experiences intense fear or discomfort. The attack is usually brought on suddenly and builds up to a peak rapidly; they usually last for 10 minutes or less.People who experience these attacks say they feel a sense of danger or approaching doom and an urge to escape. Individuals describe their fear as being very intense and report that they thought they were going to die, lose control, have a heart attack or stroke or "go crazy." They usually want to flee from wherever the attack occurs.

There are three types of Panic Attacks:

Unexpected Panic Attacks

- Occur spontaneously, the attack is not associated with a trigger ("out of the blue")

Situationally bound Panic Attacks

- Occur immediately with exposure to or anticipation of the trigger (e.g. seeing a snake or a dog)

Situationally predisposed Panic Attacks

- May occur on exposure to the situational trigger but they do not always occur immediately (attacks more likely to occur a half an hour later)

Types of Treatment

Panic Disorder is one of the most common and curable psychological problems. However, people with this problem rarely seek treatment. Even those who seek treatment are often misdiagnosed because they think they are suffering from a heart attack or stroke. However, if doctors perform tests to find out what the problem is, there will be no physical signs of illness. Once identified, there are two primary treatments for panic disorder: medication and cognitive-behavioral techniques. Studies are underway to find out which treatment is best or if the combination of the two is more successful.

Self-help: Once a person understands panic disorder and its causes, he or she can do a great deal to help him or herself. To help lessen the intensity of the attacks or even prevent them from occurring, he or she can practice diaphragmatic breathing or different cognitive-behavioral techniques. There are self-help groups that can provide you or someone you know with support and understanding because they have experienced similar problems. Individuals with panic disorder should limit the caffeine intake because excessive amounts can cause many symptoms associated with panic attacks. Leading a healthier lifestyle including a healthy diet, plenty of rest, and regular exercise is also helpful.

Once receiving professional help, the person should start to feel better within six to eight weeks of treatment. If there is no sign of improvement, that person should contact his or her doctor. If an individual is receiving cognitive-behavioral therapy, he or she may need medication as well. Anyone who undergoes both forms of treatment (cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication) is much less likely to suffer relapses.