Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder is characterized by repeated episodes of intense fear that strike often and without warning. Physical symptoms include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal distress, feelings of unreality, and fear of dying.

ďAll of a sudden, I felt a tremendous wave of fear for no reason at all. My heart was pounding, my chest hurt, and it was getting harder to breathe. I thought I was going to die. Iím so afraid. Every time I start to go out, I get that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach and Iím terrified that another panic attack is coming.Ē

What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack
        As described above, the symptoms of a panic attack appear suddenly, without any apparent cause. They may include:
  Racing or pounding heartbeat
  Chest pains
  Dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea
  Difficulty breathing
  Tingling or numbness
  Flushes or chills
  Dreamlike sensations or feelings of unreality
  Overwhelming terror
  Fear of losing control or doing something embarrassing
  Fear of dying

A panic attack typically lasts for several minutes and is one of the most distressing conditions that a person can experience. Most who have one attack will have others. When someone has repeated attacks, or feels severe anxiety about having another attack, he or she is said to have panic disorder.

What is Panic Disorder?
        Panic disorder is a serious health problem in this country. Between 3 and 6 million adult Americans will have panic disorder at some time in their lives. The disorder is strikingly different from other types of anxiety in that panic attacks are so sudden, appear to be unprovoked, and are often disabling.
        Once someone has had a panic attack Ė for example while driving, shopping in a crowded store, or riding in an elevator, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the pattern of avoidance and level of anxiety about another attack may reach the point where the individual with panic disorder may be unable to drive or even step out of the house. At this stage, the person is said to have panic disorder with agoraphobia. Thus, panic disorder can have as serious am impact on a personís daily life as other major illnesses, unless the individual receives effective treatment.

Is Panic Disorder Serious?
        Yes, panic disorder is real and potentially disabling, but it can be controlled with specific treatments. Because of the disturbing symptoms that accompany panic disorder, it may be mistaken for heart disease or some other life-threatening medical illness. People frequently go to hospital emergency rooms when they are having a panic attack, and extensive medical tests may be performed to rule out these other conditions.
        Medical personnel generally attempt to reassure people with panic attacks that they are not in great danger. But these efforts at reassurance can sometimes add to the patientís difficulties: If health care professionals use expressions such as ďitís nothing serious,Ē ďitís all in your head,Ē or ďitís nothing to worry about,Ē the patient may be given the incorrect impression that there is no real problem and that treatment is not possible or necessary.

What Causes Panic Disorder?
        According to one theory of panic disorder, the bodyís normal ďalarm system,Ē the set of mental and physical mechanisms that allows a person to respond to danger, tends to be triggered unnecessarily. Scientists donít know exactly why this happens or why some people are more susceptible to the problem than others. Panic disorder has been found to run in families, and this may mean that inheritance (genetics) plays a strong role in determining who will get it. Yet, many people who have no family history of the disorder develop it. Often the first attack is triggered by physical illness, a major life stress, or medication that increases activity in the part of the brain involved in fear reactions

What Happens if Panic Disorder is not Treated?
        Panic disorder tends to continue for months or years. It typically begins in young adulthood, but the symptoms may arise earlier or later in life. If left untreated, it may worsen to the point where the personís life is seriously affected by panic attacks and by attempts to avoid or conceal them. If fact, many people have problems with friends and family or lose their jobs while struggling to cope with panic disorder. It does not usually go away unless the person receives treatment designed specifically to help people with panic disorder. If you or someone you know has symptoms like those described in this brochure, it is important to see a health care professional for a correct diagnosis and proper treatment.

What is the Treatment for Panic Disorder?
        Thanks to research, there are a variety of treatments available, including several effective medications and a specific form of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy. Often, a combination of psychotherapy and medications produces good results. Some improvement may be noticed in a fairly short period of time, about 6 to 8 weeks. For 70 to 90 percent of people with panic disorder, appropriate treatment can prevent panic attacks or at least substantially reduce their severity and frequency. 
        In addition, people with panic disorder may need treatment for related disorders. Panic disorder belongs to a group of illnesses called anxiety disorders. Other anxiety disorders that often accompany panic disorder are phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In addition, depression has often been associated with panic disorder, as have alcohol and drug abuse. Recent research also suggests that suicide attempts are more frequent in people with panic disorder. Fortunately, these problems associated with panic disorder can be overcome, just like panic disorder itself.
        Tragically, many people with panic disorder do not seek or receive treatment. Professional evaluation and treatment are available at the Sheppard Pratt Health System by calling the Assessment Office at 410-938-3800.

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