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What is Panic Disorder?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists panic disorder as a type of anxiety disorder. Someone who has a panic disorder will experience unexpected panic attacks regularly.
Having a panic attack doesn’t automatically mean you are struggling with panic disorder. According to the DSM-5, to qualify as a panic disorder, someone has to have at least one panic attack followed by at least one month of constant fear of having another.
This fear is so intense and debilitating that it changes their behavior to the point where they might begin to actively avoid situations that can lead them to have another panic attack.
Symptoms of Panic Disorder
Someone with panic disorder will often experience a panic attack for no reason. Some of the mental and physical symptoms of a panic attack as it relates to a panic disorder include:
- Increased heart rate, pounding heart, or heart palpitations
- Chest pain
- Feeling of choking
- Trembling, shaking
- Feeling detached from your body or from reality (i.e., dissociation)
- Intense fear of dying
- Fear of losing control
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Numbness or tingling
- Chills or hot flashes
- Constant worry about when the next panic attack will hit
- Avoiding places where panic attacks have occurred in the past
For someone with panic disorder, their panic attacks might feel like they are having a heart attack, stroke, or other life-threatening medical condition.
While the DSM-5 states a panic disorder requires four or more of the above symptoms, you should contact your healthcare provider immediately if you experience any of the symptoms listed.
Panic Disorder Causes and Risk Factors
While doctors don’t exactly know what causes panic disorder, there are some causes and risk factors they have found that can increase the likelihood that someone will develop a panic disorder.
Someone with panic disorder run in their family is far more likely to develop it themselves.
If a direct family member has a panic disorder, you can also be up to eight times more likely to develop the condition. If that family member developed a panic disorder before age 20, the likeliness could increase to up to 20 times.
Age and Gender
Panic disorder is most often detected and diagnosed during a person’s teenage or early adulthood (18-35). Panic disorder is also far more common in women than men, with women more than twice as likely to develop a panic disorder.
Environment and Life Events
The environment a child grows up in plays a significant role in their overall mental health and well-being as they get older. A child who grows up in an environment full of stress, anxiety, high demand, and expected perfectionism is far more likely to develop an anxiety disorder as they get older, particularly a panic disorder.
Experiencing traumatic life events can also increase the risk of panic disorder, including:
- Death of a family member or loved one
- Witnessing or being the victim of abuse
- Witnessing or being in a major car accident
- Living through a natural disaster
It is not uncommon for someone with a panic disorder to suffer from another significant mental health condition. In some cases, the other mental health issue can lead to a panic disorder, while in others, the panic disorder can cause another mental illness.
Mental health conditions that often co-occur with a panic disorder include:
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Specific Phobias such as Agoraphobia
Panic Disorder vs. Anxiety
The DSM-5 lists panic disorder as a type of anxiety disorder. Someone with a panic disorder might experience anxiety as a side effect or symptom of their panic attacks. However, someone experiencing normal anxiety or even suffering from an anxiety attack won’t always experience feelings of panic.
Panic Disorder and Addiction
Not everyone that has a panic disorder seeks treatment right away. Some people might not fully understand what is happening to them, or they might be too ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help.
Turning to drugs or alcohol is relatively common for those suffering from a mental health condition to self-medicate and feel better, even if only for a brief period.
In the short term, using illicit substances might seem like it is working, and you might begin to feel better. Doing so can increase the risk of developing an addiction and worsen your panic disorder symptoms while causing additional health problems.
Panic Disorder Treatment Options
If you have a panic disorder, it’s important to remember that treatment options are available. Treatment options available for panic disorder include:
- Support Groups
- Home Remedies
Sometimes referred to as talk therapy, psychotherapy has been proven effective in treating many mental health conditions, including panic disorder. One form of psychotherapy commonly used to treat panic disorder is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
The goal of CBT is to help you better understand what caused the development of your panic disorder. From there, you can learn better ways of handling these triggers in the future so it doesn’t continue to cause panic attacks.
Exposure Therapy is a form of CBT specifically used to treat panic disorder. During exposure therapy, your therapist or treatment professional will put you in a situation designed to cause panic. You will then learn to control your emotions better until you reach the point where you no longer feel panic.
Another common type of treatment for panic disorder is Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). During MAT, your doctor or mental health professional will prescribe certain medications that help alleviate the symptoms of your panic disorder.
Medications that are FDA approved for treating panic disorder and have proven to be effective include:
- Antidepressants such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)
Common name brands of these types of medications include:
The Anxiety & Depression Association of America has provided those suffering from a mental health condition like panic disorder with a resource page to help them find support groups in their area, both virtual and in person.
For those who have a panic disorder and feel they have nobody they can talk to, a support group is a safe and supportive environment to share what they are going through with others who have experienced the same or similar issues.
You can also do several things from the comfort of your own home to better manage your panic disorder symptoms.
Below are some effective home remedies:
- Cut down on your caffeine intake or eliminate it entirely
- Exercise regularly
- Adopt a healthy diet
- Limit or eliminate alcohol intake
- Deep breathing
Find Help for Panic Disorder
If you or someone you know is regularly getting panic attacks or suffering from panic disorder, it is helpful to seek support immediately. You can reach out to your healthcare provider or a licensed treatment professional or visit the SAMHSA online Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to find treatment solutions near you.
Frequently Asked Questions About Panic Disorder
What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Increased heart rate
- Heart palpitations
- Chills or hot flashes
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Numbness or tingling
- Fear of dying
What are the causes of panic disorder?
Panic disorder can be caused by a variety of factors, including:
- Life Events
- Other Mental Illness
What are the signs of panic disorder?
Someone who has a panic disorder might experience the following:
- Sudden and repeated panic attacks
- Feeling out of control
- Fear of death or impending doom
- Extreme worry about when the next panic attack will occur
- Avoiding places where panic attacks have happened in the past
- Panic attack symptoms