Panic Disorder (Ohio State University)

Nothing is so much to be feared as Fear
-- Henry David Thoreau


People with panic disorder suffer from a "fear of fear." These individuals suffer from panic attacks-- intense feelings of terror that strike suddenly and are incapacitating. These panic attacks are uncued, meaning that they come on with no warning, and thus individuals with panic disorder never know when they might suffer from an attack. In between attacks there is often an intense and lingering anxiety about the risk of having another attack. Often the fear of having another attack can lead an individual to avoid activities and restrict behaviors, leading to agoraphobic avoidance. In some cases individuals can only perform certain activities in the presence of a "safe person" who can assist them in case of an attack.

When a panic attack strikes, most likely your heart pounds and you may feel sweaty, weak, faint, or dizzy. Your hands may tingle or feel numb, and you might feel flushed or chilled. You may have chest pain or smothering sensations, a sense of unreality, or fear of impending doom or loss of control. You may genuinely believe you are having a heart attack or stroke, losing your mind, or on the verge of death. Some people experience feelings of derealization--as though the world has somehow slowed down, or is no longer real. Attacks can occur at any time, even during non-dream sleep. While most attacks average a couple of minutes, occasionally they can go on for up to 10 minutes. In rare cases they can last an hour or more." Anxiety Disorders: Decade of the Brain
Panic Attack Symptoms
o Pounding Heart
o Chest Pains
o Lightheadedness or dizziness
o Nausea or stomach problems
o Flushes or chills
o Shortness of breath or a feeling of smothering or choking
o Tingling or numbing
o Shaking or trembling
o Feelings of unreality
o Terror
o A feeling of being out of control or going crazy
o Fear of dying
o Sweating

Although many of these feelings happen to some people at some point in time in their lives, individuals with panic disorder live in fear of experiencing these symptoms and experience them frequently. For some individuals panic attacks may originally be cued by certain environmental features but later occur without any predisposing stress or identifiable cues. It is also possible to suffer from discrete panic attacks and not suffer from panic disorder. It only becomes a disorder when the individual suffers from recurrent and uncued attacks, begins to fear having another attack in between episodes or fears the consequences of an attack (e.g., going crazy, having a stroke) and shows significant impairment in functioning.

Do you have Panic Disorder?
Check here to find out more about the clinical signs and symptoms of a Panic Disorder diagnosis.

Many of the symptoms are similar to those experienced in acute medical crisis, such as a heart attack, and many individuals seek immediate medical attention only to be told that their problems are psychological, not medical. Indeed, many individuals with panic disorder have had repeated medical tests and have sought several "second opinions" because it is difficult to believe that one can experience such intense symptoms and not have a medical illness. Unfortunately many individuals with panic disorder also begin to "self-medicate" their anxiety through the use of alcohol and drugs.

Who gets panic disorder? Approximately 1.6 percent of the population suffers from panic disorder. A majority of these individuals are women, with twice as many women diagnosed with panic disorder than men. This can appear at any age but most often beings in young adults. Many individuals suffer with this disorder for years before finding a "true" diagnosis and many more suffer for years before seeking treatment.

Fortunately treatments for panic disorder are among the best researched and most effective types of therapy. Studies have shown that given proper treatment, such as those described on the treatment and therapies page, 70-90% of panic disorder patients will show improvement. Alternative medical treatments (i.e., medications) are also available and can be used in conjunction with psychological therapies. For many, significant improvement occurs within 6 to 8 weeks.