Panic Disorder


What is Panic Disorder?

It can strike without warning – a sudden and intense rush of terror with powerful symptoms like a racing heart, chest pain, trouble breathing, stomach upset, dizziness and feeling out of control or unsafe. You’re having a panic attack – and if it’s your first, you may even mistake it for a heart attack. Some people have just one or two panic attacks. But if you have repeated attacks, worry about them frequently and go out of your way to avoid them, you could have panic disorder – a type of anxiety disorder.

Panic Disorder Causes & Risk Factors

While the exact causes of panic disorder are unknown, several risk factors may play a role in panic disorder. 

  • Your genetic makeup
  • The use of alcohol and substances as a way to cope with panic disorder symptoms can worsen them
  • Medical conditions such as thyroid disease and others can make you especially susceptible
  • A family history of panic disorder
  • People who have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder often have panic disorder, however it’s uncertain whether one condition causes the other

Symptoms of Panic Disorder

People who have panic attacks don’t necessarily have panic disorder. Symptoms of a panic disorder include frequent, unexpected panic attacks along with four or more of the following signs:

  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling like you’re choking or being smothered
  • Immediate need to flee or get fresh air
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Nausea or stomach pains
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Feeling odd, unreal or detached
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of death or dying
  • Frequently recalling past attacks and feeling desperate to avoid another

If you’ve had at least two panic attacks, discuss them with your Mercy doctor or a Mercy behavioral health provider. 

What is the Difference Between Panic Disorder & Panic Attack?

Panic attacks are more common than panic disorder. Approximately 1 in 10 American adults have them every year, and about 1 in 3 will have one in their lifetime. Panic disorder is more unusual. Only 3% of adults have this condition, and it affects more women than men.

Diagnosing & Treating Panic Disorder 

If you’re experiencing repeated panic attacks and think you may have panic disorder, share your concerns with your Mercy doctor. Although no specific lab test can diagnose panic disorder, your doctor may have you complete self-evaluations, assessments as well as ask questions regarding your symptoms. After your diagnostic evaluation, your doctor or therapist will reference the DSM-5 to determine if you meet the diagnostic criteria for panic disorder.

Panic Disorder Treatment Options

Your doctor may refer you to a Mercy behavioral health professional to ensure you get the best possible care. Therapy can help you manage thoughts and behaviors that contribute to panic attacks. A combination of the following programs is often used to treat panic disorder.

CBT for panic disorder teaches you skills to manage anxiety, and it’s effective for treating panic disorder. CBT can be done individually or in a group of people with similar issues. You’ll learn how to change the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that can bring on a panic attack.

Exposure therapy is sometimes used to treat anxiety disorders by helping you face your fears in a controlled setting. It helps treat external fears (of objects, activities and situations) and internal fears (thoughts and physical sensations) by gradually reducing your reaction to them.

Medications may also help with panic disorder. Your Mercy doctor will discuss your options and may prescribe medications, in addition to therapy. Some of these can be taken for years, while other medications work better in the short term.

Alternative medicine such as therapeutic yoga, massage or meditation may also help reduce your panic and anxiety symptoms.

  • Therapeutic yoga postures ease tension, tightness and pain sensitivity.
  • Massage therapy relieves tension and promotes relaxation.
  • Meditation practices like mindfulness help you replace unhealthy thoughts with a sense of calm and acceptance. Reflecting on your thoughts and feelings lets you observe them from a safe place.

Lifestyle changes like limiting caffeine and alcohol, exercising regularly and practicing deep breathing can help with managing panic attacks.

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