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Understanding panic disorder

Repeated bouts of extreme fear could signal panic disorder. The condition may be physically and emotionally debilitating, but it is treatable.

Just about everyone has experienced moments of panic. They come in schools when teachers announce pop quizzes and in crowded shopping malls when parents suddenly lose sight of young children. Even the flashing lights of a police car in the rearview mirror can produce a sudden surge of panic.

For most of us, occurrences like these are few and far between. But some people live with frequent episodes of extreme fear that come with frightening physical symptoms. If you're one of them, you could have panic disorder.

Fortunately, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that panic disorder is treatable.

Recognize the symptoms

According to the NIMH, people with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that can last for several minutes or even longer. Often the fear is intense and may include physical symptoms, such as:

  • Sweating, chills or hot flashes.
  • A pounding heart.
  • Weakness, dizziness or trembling.
  • Chest pain.
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands, arms, feet or legs.
  • Nausea or stomach pain.

Sometimes these symptoms are mistaken for a heart attack or other life-threatening medical condition.

Often people who have panic disorder have deep-seated worries about when the next attack will happen. They dread the possibility of another attack and may avoid places where attacks have occurred in the past. This can make it difficult to go to school or work or to perform everyday activities, such as driving or shopping.

What causes panic disorder?

The exact cause of panic disorder is unknown, but it may run in families. Frequently, it begins in a person's teens or early adult years and generally is more common in women than men, according to the NIMH. Stressful events, such as getting married or having a child, may bring it on. In many cases it occurs along with other problems, such as depression or substance abuse.

Mental Health America reports that there is some evidence to suggest that the brains of those affected set off a "suffocation alarm" when panic strikes. This may cause people to believe that they are about to die—a feeling experienced by many people with the disorder.

Getting help

The first step in dealing with panic disorder is to tell your doctor about your symptoms. Don't let embarrassment keep you from bringing the problem into the open.

The doctor may examine you to make sure some other problem isn't causing the symptoms. It's possible that he or she will also refer you to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist.

If panic disorder is confirmed, treatment may include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicines or beta blockers—drugs sometimes prescribed for heart problems.

Medication can be very effective at stopping panic attacks or lessening their severity, but treatment can take several weeks to start working.

Talk therapy with a mental health professional can also be beneficial, though it may take even longer than medicine to work. For some people, treatment may last only months. Others may need it for the rest of their life, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

If you're living with panic disorder, it is important to seek help.

Reviewed 4/8/2022

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