What is Panic Disorder?

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Panic disorder is one of the subtypes of a group of psychiatric conditions that involve excessive anxiety. This group is otherwise known as anxiety disorders. Pathologic anxiety, which is an excessive feeling of apprehension or fear, is oftentimes disabling especially when the triggers are unknown as it adds to the distress the person feels.

A person with panic disorder often experiences panic attacks, which are abrupt surges of intense fear and discomfort, that is unproportional to the gravity of the current situation or may even be unrelated at all.  This begins with a 10 minute period of rapidly worsening physical and cognitive symptoms that peaks in approximately 10 to 15 minutes. The panic attack continues for around half an hour wherein the person is often rushed to the emergency room, only for the symptoms to abate by then. The person usually just feels very tired and fatigued after an episode. Panic attacks can be expected or unexpected depending if the triggers have already been identified.

Although panic disorder can occur at any age, studies have reported that peak incidence is usually between 18 and 45 years old. Moreover, women are said to be twice to up to thrice as likely to have this disorder than men. Lifetime prevalence for adults in the United States of America is estimated to be between 2% to 6%.

Signs and Symptoms of Panic Disorder

Signs and symptoms of panic disorder is usually related to the hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system or the fight or flight response. Panic disorder may be considered if the person has at least four of the following:

One of the symptoms of panic disorder is a choking feeling upon attack
One of the symptoms of panic disorder is a choking feeling upon attack
  • A feeling of imminent danger or a fear of dying
  • The need to flee or escape
  • Palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Choking feeling
  • Chest pain or chest discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain or abdominal discomfort
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • A sense of things being unreal
  • A fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Tingling sensations on extremities
  • Chills or hot flushes

Causes of Panic Disorder

Although the exact etiology of panic disorder is yet to be determined, it is postulated that the cause of this disorder is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Examples of these are the following:

  • Familial tendency – it is thought that panic disorder is hereditary and so a person is more predisposed if he has a family member with the same disorder
  • Abnormality in the brain such as a heightened sensitivity to internal autonomic cues
  • Substance abuse such as excessive and chronic consumption of illegal drugs and alcohol can contribute to the development of this disorder
  • Major life stressor or a major life transition such as a death of a loved one can also be the source of this disorder

Treatment of Panic Disorder

Panic disorder can be managed easily with the following treatments:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – this type of psychotherapy is the treatment of choice for panic disorder and thus, should be considered for all patients. It is important to narrow down the triggers and to identify the frequency and nature of the symptoms in order for it be managed well.
  • Pharmacologic management is also available. Examples are the following:
    • Benzodiazepine which is a drug that is taken only when needed
    • Longer term management includes the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor

Another consideration for patients with panic disorder is to treat the co-occurring psychiatric disorder as persons with panic disorder are often accompanied by depression and other mood disorders.

Understanding panic disorder can help when taking First Aid Classes.

Panic disorder is the most commonly treated anxiety disorder that is characterized by an abrupt onset of an episode of intense fear or discomfort.

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