Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by spontaneous panic attacks, intense anxiety about having subsequent panic attacks, excessive worry about the effects or consequences of the panic attacks, and implementation of significant changes to daily activities in an attempt to avoid situations where the possibility of experiencing a panic attack is perceived to be higher (e.g., classrooms, stores, bathrooms, driving, flying, subways, concerts, grocery stores).
Prevalence: Panic disorder affects nearly 6 million adults in the US and is more common in women than men. The age of onset for panic attacks is typically late adolescence or early adulthood; however, not everyone who experiences panic attacks develop panic disorder. Individuals can have just one attack and not have another. While the exact cause(s) of attacks are uncertain, there can be a correlation with major life transitions (e.g., graduation, starting a new job, getting married, having a child, starting college). There is also evidence that suggests that if a member in an individual’s family has suffered from panic disorder, there is an increased chance of suffering from it, especially during a time that is especially stressful.
Repeated, full-scale panic attacks can become very disabling. Individuals with this condition should seek treatment promptly, as they may be inclined to avoid situations or places where they have experienced panic attacks before. For example, if a panic attack occurred while driving a car, someone with panic disorder may develop a fear of driving, which would significantly affect their ability to go to essential places, including work, school, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, friend’s houses, etc.
Nearly one-third of individuals who suffer from panic disorder become housebound, or are only able to confront a feared situation or location if they go with an individual they trust. When panic disorder progresses to this point, the individual is at risk to develop agoraphobia (fear of open spaces).
A panic attack is the sudden onset of intense, overwhelming fear or discomfort that comes without any warning or apparent reason, generally reaching a peak within minutes and occurring with a series of physical symptoms. Physical symptoms that occur during an attack can differ from person to person, and may include:
Accelerated heart rate, “pounding heart”, or palpitations
Shaking or trembling
Sensations of breathing difficultly or shortness of breath
Feelings of suffocating or choking
Chest pain or discomfort
Nausea or abdominal discomfort
Feeling dizzy, faint, or light-headed
Chills or sensations of heat
Sensations of numbness or tingling
Feelings of unreality or feelings of being detached from oneself
Fear of loss of control or “going crazy”
Fear of dying
People with panic disorder may have:
Sudden and recurrent attacks of fear
A feeling of loss of control during a panic attack
An intense worry about when another attack will happen
A fear or avoidance of situations or places where panic attacks have occurred before
Panic symptoms resemble the classic "flight or fight" reaction that humans (and animals) experience when they are in a dangerous situation. However, during a panic attack, these symptoms seem to come out of nowhere, in seemingly harmless situations, often making individuals feel like a hostage to their fear of another attack. This can significantly hinder daily routines, including social, occupational and school functioning.
Early treatment can help prevent agoraphobia; however, people with panic disorder sometimes go from doctor to doctor (and emergency room to emergency room) over a span of years before they are correctly diagnosed with panic disorder. Many hesitate in seeking help because they are too afraid or embarrassed to tell doctors or loved ones about what they experience for fear of being thought of as a hypochondriac. Such individuals tend to suffer in silence and solitude, isolating themselves from family and friends who may have been supportive. However, the good news is that panic disorder is one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders—responding well to individually-tailored implementations of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which ultimately help to alter thinking patterns that perpetuate fear and anxiety. Spectrum uses graded progressive exposure therapy while also working on strengthening your current coping skills. Therapist and client work together to move treatment at a pace that works for you and gets your life back on track. Your mind and body learn how to withstand waves of intense panic without “snowballing” – a process where people, in trying to cope with the panic attack, inadvertently trigger panic to become more intense and/or last longer. Our approach helps you and your body adjust your intrinsic fight-or-flight system so that it does not “fire up” as often or as intensely.