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January 5, 2012

What is a Panic Attack?

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that causes repeated, unexpected attacks of intense fear. These attacks may last from minutes to hours. And for anywhere between two and six million Americans, panic disorders are an everyday reality. The intense feeling of panic and the racing heart that accompanies it is familiar to us all! For most people, it's possible to pinpoint the genesis of where the panic is coming from and to then rationalize it in their heads, so that they might calm down again. But for people with panic disorder, rational thinking has little bearing on feelings of panic. Panic disorder is a serious anxiety disorder, which strikes without reason or warning. With panic disorder, at least four of the following symptoms suddenly occur within 10 minutes. Chest pain or discomfort, dizziness or faintness, palpitations or pounding heart, sensation of shortness of breath, sweating, chills or hot flashes, trembling or shaking. Sometimes stomach upset and other symptoms are also present. Often, these physical issues cause a person to fear that they are going crazy, having a heart attack, or even dying. Together, these symptoms are known as a panic attack. Often, attacks are followed by at least 1 month of persistent fear of having another attack. While anyone may experience a panic attack, people with panic disorder have them on a frequent basis, and generally, they occur for no discernible reason. In fact, the frequency and unpredictability of panic attacks leads people with panic disorder to experience persistent fear of having yet another one. There are often extreme changes in behavior at home, school, work, or with family. The fear of a panic attack may lead an individual to avoid public places, crowds, and other situations in which panic may occur. In extreme cases, fear gets so bad that a person will refuse to leave his own home. This is known as agoraphobia, a condition that occurs in approximately one-third of people with panic disorder. So why do panic disorders develop in the first place? Doctors aren't sure, but genetics may play a role. Studies suggest that if one identical twin has panic disorder, the other twin will also develop the condition 40% of the time. However, panic disorder often occurs in family members who are not blood relatives. Symptoms usually begin before age 25. Although panic disorder may occur in children, it is often not diagnosed until they are older. People with this condition often have medical tests and exams for symptoms related to heart attack or other conditions before a diagnosis of panic disorder is made. People who abuse alcohol or drugs may be more susceptible to panic disorder as are people who go through a major life stress, such as losing a job or dealing with a natural disaster. Additionally, panic disorders are twice as common in women as they are in men. Whatever the cause, this condition can be extremely debilitating and difficult to cope with alone. Many people with panic disorder first seek treatment in the emergency room, because the panic attack feels like a heart attack. In order to diagnose panic disorder, a health care provider will perform a physical examination, including blood tests and a psychiatric evaluation, as medical disorders must be ruled out before panic disorder can be diagnosed. Panic disorders may be long lasting and difficult to treat. Some people with this disorder may not be cured with treatment. However, most people can expect rapid improvement with drug and behavioral therapies. Luckily, a combination of talk therapy, or psychotherapy and prescription medication like Klonopin, Paxil, or Xanax can help up to 90-percent of sufferers find relief! Dependence on anti-anxiety medications is a possible complication of treatment. Dependence involves needing a medication to be able to function and to avoid withdrawal symptoms. It is not the same as addiction, which involves the uncontrolled use of a substance despite negative results. Dependence and addiction often occur together, but dependence itself is not always a problem. See a health care provider immediately if you or someone you love is experiencing symptoms of panic disorder.

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Last Updated:
December 20, 2012