Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by experiencing recurring panic attacks. During a panic attack, a sudden increase in intense fear or discomfort, you may feel closed in, have a hard time breathing, feel faint, have chest pain, or feel detached from reality. You may think that you are having a heart attack. You may experience sudden, intense feelings of terror without actually being in danger. Panic attacks typically only last for a few minutes, but those few minutes are extremely stressful. 

One of the most life-disrupting aspects of having panic disorder is that these attacks can come at any time, and seemingly with no provocation or cause. This disorder typically starts in young adulthood and can get worse in times of stress. Treatment and medication can help you cope with panic disorder.

Symptoms

If you have panic disorder, you may have panic attacks a few times per year, or more often in times of stress. Talk to your doctor if you experience a panic attack or notice the symptoms of panic disorder developing. Everyone experiences panic disorder differently, but there are a few common factors that indicate that you’re having a panic attack, such as:

  • Heart palpitations or your heart seeming to beat too fast
  • Trouble breathing or a feeling that you can't get enough air
  • Feeling physically trapped or paralyzed and unable to move
  • Extreme fear in situations that are not dangerous
  • Shaking or trembling uncontrollably
  • Fainting or feeling lightheaded
  • Sweating even if it isn’t hot, or chills even if it isn’t cold
  • Feeling muscle weakness or a sudden inability to control your body
  • Feeling detached from reality, like you’re watching events around you on television
  • Chest pain or a feeling that you are choking
  • An inability to collect your thoughts or speak

Causes

Panic disorder can be attributed to a variety of different factors. Some people experience panic disorder all of their lives, and some people have it for only a short period of time. You may have occasional panic attacks without having panic disorder. If you experience a panic attack, you should speak to your doctor about it. Some of the risk factors for developing panic disorder include:

  • A family history of anxiety disorders, panic disorder, or depression
  • Exposure to trauma, violence, or tragedy
  • Abuse in childhood or adulthood including domestic violence or sexual assault
  • Some physical health issues including problems metabolizing caffeine or thyroid dysfunction
  • Side effects from other medication
  • Brain damage
  • Changes in your body chemistry or your brain’s “fight or flight” response
  • Substance misuse or trauma, or damage caused by previous substance misuse

Treatment

Panic disorder can be disruptive to your life and your family, but there are many effective treatments available to help you cope with it. Medication, education, and therapy can help you feel more in control.

Medication: Anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, and mood-stabilizing drugs are just a few of the medications available to help control the symptoms of your panic disorder. Speak with a medical professional to learn more.

Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, breathing and coping techniques, and talk therapy are all helpful in treating panic disorder. Learn more about therapy options at Sheppard Pratt. 

Education: Learning more about your triggers, coping skills, and new advances in the treatment of panic disorder can help you and your family handle your disorder. See more about panic disorder, anxiety, and mental health.

Support: You are not alone when learning to live with panic disorder or anxiety. A support group can help you feel less isolated. Find the right group for you at Sheppard Pratt.