Panic Disorder: Symptoms and Treatment

A person is diagnosed with a panic disorder when they experience spontaneous panic attacks. Not only that, but they are also overcome with the fear of a recurring attack. The feelings of anxiety and fear are overwhelming and can last for several minutes. These attacks are unpredictable and have no obvious trigger. If left untreated, a panic disorder greatly reduces a person’s quality of life by causing other mental health disorders, social isolation, and problems at work or school.

What is a Panic Attack?

If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you understand just how frightening they can be. Most human beings will experience a panic attack in their life at one point or another, but the problem will go away, seemingly when a stressful situation ends. However, sudden and recurring panic attacks are a sign of a panic disorder.

Panic attacks usually begin suddenly and without warning. They feel like a sudden surge of anxiety that takes over the entire body. When they strike, they are debilitating and immobilizing. The body’s fight-or-flight response is triggered because the individual feels threatened and unable to escape. A panic attack can feel like you are in physical danger or losing control over your own mind.

Panic Attack Signs and Symptoms

A panic attack can happen at any time, even if the person is relaxed or asleep. Panic attacks have different variations, and some people may react differently than others. Symptoms will usually peak within minutes. The terror and fear that a panic attack causes is usually not comparable to the actual situation happening around them. Most people that experience panic attacks will have several symptoms, including:

  • Racing heart or heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Feeling of choking
  • Numbness
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • Sense of terror
  • Detachment from reality

Panic Disorder

Individuals who have experienced one panic attack are at a greater risk of having subsequent attacks and developing a panic disorder. People with a panic disorder may be extremely anxious since they are unable to know when the next panic episode will occur. A person with this condition may feel a become discouraged and even ashamed of their feelings because it is difficult for them to function normally with routines like going to work or school.

People with panic disorder may display the following signs:

  • Sudden and repeated panic attacks
  • A fear of settings or situations where the panic attacks have occurred before
  • Physical symptoms during a panic attack such as racing heart, sweating, breathing problems, and nausea
  • Fear of death or impending doom during a panic attack
  • Intense worry about when the next panic attack will take place

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder with it being twice as common in women than in men. Unfortunately, many people don’t know that their condition is real and highly treatable.

Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder Risk Factors

Similar to other mental health conditions there is no exact cause of a panic disorder. However, there are a few risk factors that come into play, including:

  • Genetics. If a person has a close family member with a panic disorder, it increases the likelihood that they will have a panic attack.
  • Major life transition. A major life change such as getting married or divorced, having a child, or graduating college may trigger a panic attack.
  • Severe stress. Situations that cause extreme stress such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one can also contribute to panic disorder.
  • Certain habits such as smoking or consuming excessive amounts of caffeine can provoke panic attacks.
  • Medical conditions such as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), and certain medication withdrawal.

Panic Disorder and Addiction

It is not uncommon for a panic disorder to coexist with substance abuse or an addiction issue. This is classified as a co-occurring disorder or a dual diagnosis. This is because the individual may use drugs or alcohol in an effort to cope with the anxiety of panic disorder. They may fee temporary relief, but ultimately these substances only make the condition worse.

Those with a co-occurring disorder will turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to calm their fear of an impending panic attack. As a result, they begin to develop a substance abuse disorder as they attempt to escape from their panic disorder. Unfortunately, substances can potentially trigger panic attacks and end up worsening both disorders. During treatment, both conditions will need to be addressed in order to fully recover.

Panic Disorder Treatment

Witnessing a loved one suffering from panic disorder, or experiencing it yourself, is extremely frightening. Fortunately, you are not alone and treatment is possible. The right treatment plan will take your individual case into consideration and get the panic attacks under control in order to live a peaceful, fulfilling life. Mental health disorders are tricky, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Often, a combination of psychotherapy, holistic treatment, and medications are used to treat panic disorder.

  • Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is often the first course of action in panic disorder treatment. Different methods of psychotherapy help the client to understand their condition and learn how to cope with it. Individuals will start to learn from their experiences until they accept them and it no longer feels threatening.
  • Medications. Typically, medications are prescribed to patients as a part of their treatment plan. A medical professional will work with you to decide which medication will work best for you.
  • Holistic Treatments. Along with psychotherapy and medication, there are some holistic treatments that may naturally improve panic disorder symptoms. This includes meditation, breathwork, exercise, and spiritual exploration.

Even after diagnosis, panic attacks can often be unpredictable and leave people feeling helpless. Having a treatment plan in place helps to ease these feelings of uncertainty. Although it can be challenging, panic disorder is a treatable condition. There is no reason that you should live your life in fear of a panic attack. Contact us today for more information on treating panic disorder.