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Panic Disorder

What is panic disorder?

Individuals with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes, some even longer.  These are called panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. An individual may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack and may it feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time, and many individuals with panic disorder worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack. A person with panic disorder may become discouraged and feel ashamed because they cannot carry out normal routines like going to the grocery store or driving. Having panic disorder can also interfere with school or work.

Symptoms of panic disorder

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Heart palpitations or a racing heart
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Choking feeling
  • Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings 
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy

What causes panic disorder?

Although the exact causes of panic attacks and panic disorder are unclear, the tendency to have panic attacks runs in families. There also appears to be a connection with major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married, and having a baby. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also trigger a panic attack. Panic attacks can also be caused by medical conditions and other physical causes.

How is panic disorder diagnosed?

A mental health professional makes a diagnosis of panic disorder by taking a complete personal history from the individual. It is important that your doctor or therapist learn about all the details that surround the stressful event. No laboratory tests are required to make the diagnosis of panic disorder nor are there any physical conditions that must be met. However, it is very important for your mental health professional not to overlook a physical illness that might imitate or contribute to a psychological disorder.

How is panic disorder treated?

Panic disorder is generally treated with therapy, medication, or both. Therapy is especially useful for treating panic disorder. It teaches an individual different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to situations that help them feel less anxious and fearful. Medication may be prescribed to help ease the anxiety and depression associated with panic disorder.

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