Do you sometimes have sudden attacks of fear that last for several minutes? Do you feel like you are having a heart attack or can’t breathe? Do these attacks occur at unpredictable times causing you to worry about the possibility of having another one at any time?
If so, you may have a type of anxiety disorder called panic disorder.
What is panic disorder?
People with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes or longer. These are called panic attacks, and are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. A person may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack — in fact, it may feel like having a heart attack.
Panic attacks can occur at any time, and many people 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 he or she cannot carry out normal routines like going to the grocery store or driving. Having panic disorder can also interfere with school or work. Some people’s lives become so restricted that about one-third become housebound or are able to confront a feared situation only when accompanied by a spouse or other trusted person. When the condition progresses this far, it is called agoraphobia, or fear of open spaces.
Panic disorder affects about 6 million American adults, and is twice as common in women as men. Panic attacks often begin in late adolescence or early adulthood, but not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder. Many people have just one attack and never have another. The tendency to develop panic attacks appears to be inherited.
People who have full-blown, repeated panic attacks can become very disabled by their condition, and should seek treatment before they start to avoid places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. For example, if a panic attack happened in an elevator, someone with panic disorder may develop a fear of elevators that could affect the choice of a job or an apartment, and restrict where that person can seek medical attention or enjoy entertainment.
Symptoms of panic disorder
Signs of panic disorder
People with panic disorder may have:
Sudden and repeated attacks of fear
A feeling of being out of control during a panic attack
An intense worry about when the next attack will happen
A fear/avoidance of places where attacks have occurred
Physical symptoms during an attack, such as…
a pounding or racing heart
weakness or dizziness
feeling hot or a cold chill
tingly or numb hands
Panic disorder is a real illness, characterized by sudden attacks of terror, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweatiness, weakness, faintness, or dizziness.
During these attacks, people with panic disorder may flush or feel chilled; their hands may tingle or feel numb; and they may experience nausea, chest pain, or smothering sensations. Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control.
A fear of one’s own unexplained physical symptoms is also a symptom of panic disorder. People having panic attacks sometimes believe they are having heart attacks, losing their minds, or on the verge of death. They can’t predict when or where an attack will occur, and between episodes many worry intensely and dread the next attack.
Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep. An attack usually peaks within 10 minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer.
Panic disorder is often accompanied by other serious problems, such as depression, drug abuse, or alcoholism. These conditions need to be treated separately.
What is it like to have panic disorder?
Here’s what six people had to say about their experiences with panic disorder:
“One day, without any warning or reason, I felt terrified. I was so afraid, I thought I was going to die. My heart was pounding and my head was spinning. I would get these feelings every couple of weeks. I thought I was losing my mind.”
“The more attacks I had, the more afraid I got. I was always living in fear. I didn’t know when I might have another attack. I became so afraid that I didn’t want to leave my house.”
“My friend saw how afraid I was and told me to call my doctor for help. My doctor told me I was physically healthy but that I have panic disorder. My doctor gave me medicine that helps me feel less afraid. I’ve also been working with a counselor learning ways to cope with my fear. I had to work hard, but after a few months of medicine and therapy, I’m starting to feel like myself again.”
“For me, a panic attack is almost a violent experience. I feel disconnected from reality. I feel like I’m losing control in a very extreme way. My heart pounds really hard, I feel like I can’t get my breath, and there’s an overwhelming feeling that things are crashing in on me.”
“It started 10 years ago, when I had just graduated from college and started a new job. I was sitting in a business seminar in a hotel and this thing came out of the blue. I felt like I was dying.”
“In between attacks there is this dread and anxiety that it’s going to happen again. I’m afraid to go back to places where I’ve had an attack. Unless I get help, there soon won’t be anyplace where I can go and feel safe from panic.”