Panic Disorder Information
Panic disorder is a common mental health problem that can affect up to five percent of the population at some point in their lives. It is a real illness; it is not the product of an overactive imagination or an inability to handle real life. It can seriously affect quality of life, but there are several treatment options that can help alleviate it.
Panic disorder belongs in the class of mental disorders known as anxiety disorders. Its symptoms include panic attacks: repeated episodes of extreme fear. These episodes strike very suddenly and give no warning. This unexpected fear is accompanied by physical reactions that include chest pain, very fast heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness, or upset stomach. Other reactions may include sweatiness or weakness, or a feeling of either being flushed or chilled. You might feel like you are being smothered, like things are surreal or dream-like, or a like you are about to lose control of your situation. It an also lead to a secondary fear of a new attack, making people reluctant to put themselves in situations where they feel another panic attack might happen.
Adding to that fear is the fact that a panic attack can happen at any time. Since the triggers are often unclear, there seem to be no behaviors or environments to avoid, or anything that can be done to prevent one from happening. Panic attacks can even happen while you are sleeping. They seem to peak within ten minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer, especially the fear of having another one.
Nobody is quite sure what causes panic attacks, or the repeated attacks that constitute panic disorder. One theory is that the body’s normal alarm system, or the physiological triggers that help a person respond to a real threat, get tripped unnecessarily, even though there is no apparent danger. Nobody is sure exactly why this happens, but you may be more at risk for a panic attack if it runs in your family—indicating a possible genetic component to panic disorder. Attacks can be triggered by stress or physical illness, but there is no way to predict if these things alone will trigger an attack.
Panic attacks usually begin sometimes around late adolescence or early adulthood, but just because you have a panic attack does not mean you will suffer from panic disorder. It is possible to have one panic attack and never have another. Panic disorder is a condition where panic attacks occur frequently, if unpredictably. It can deeply affect a person’s quality of life, since people can become obsessed with preventing attacks. They can live in fear of more attacks, and avoid going out in public or into situations that they fear might provoke another attack. Panic disorder can become crippling and limiting, but it does not have to remain that way.
If you have repeated panic attacks, or if you worry for a month or more about having more attacks, or if you change the way you live because you’re afraid of more attacks, chances are you are experiencing more than just panic attacks. You may have panic disorder. Unfortunately, panic disorder is frequently misdiagnosed and under treated. Some people who experience repeated panic attacks go from doctor to doctor seeking some kind of understanding of what is happening to them, and some kind of help for their condition. Since a panic attack can make you feel as though you are having a heart attack or dying, many people who suffer from panic disorder end up in emergency rooms repeatedly. Studies also show that many people who suffer from panic disorder are not getting the best or most appropriate treatment from their primary care physicians. Only about twenty to forty percent of patients with panic disorder are even receiving the minimum standard of treatment.
Panic disorder can be treated; in fact, it is one of the most treatable of all mental disorders, and more treatments are being developed all the time. These can include medications and other psychological therapies. Some commonly used and effective medications include Zoloft, Paxil, and Klonopin. Cognitive and behavioral therapy, in particular, have also been shown to be very effective, especially in conjunction with drug therapies. Your doctor may teach you stress management techniques or other techniques designed to help you avoid feeding the fear reaction when a panic attack does occur. Studies have shown that the combination of both drugs and psychotherapy has been proven to be more effective than either course of treatment alone.
Your primary care provider will probably refer you to a mental health professional. Make sure that you feel comfortable discussing your feelings with your mental health provider, as your feelings are the primary problem you are seeking treatment for. You should also ascertain whether they are open to both medication and therapy as treatments for your panic disorder; you want to have all options available to you. Some people find great benefit in joining support groups where they can learn how other people have managed fear and anxiety; these are available in or near most communities.
Panic disorder can be complicated because it can lead to phobias. If you are afraid of having a panic attack, you may begin to avoid places or activities where you have had one before. These might include common activities such as driving, going to the grocery store, or even to work. If it continues very long, the resulting phobia will have to be treated along with the panic attacks. There are also other complications that may come with panic disorder. Mental disorders seldom travel alone, so you may experience problems with depression, alcohol abuse or drug use. These other disorders can make it more difficult to determine an appropriate course of treatment, but each needs to be treated individually and resolved separately.
People with panic disorder have a very good chance, with treatment, of living happy and normal lives. If you experience panic attacks or episodes, talk to your primary care provider. He or she may be able to prescribe an appropriate medication for you, or they can refer you to someone who can help you find the treatment that best for you.