Individuals with Panic Disorder experience recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. A Panic Attack is a segment of time in which all or some of the following symptoms happen:
- Heart palpitations
- Pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Sweating, trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint,
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or Depersonalization (being detached from oneself),
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations),
- Chills or hot flushes
The level of terror and fear is completely out of proportion to the actual danger. Panic Attacks come on quickly, with no warning, making the sufferer feel out of control.
According to the American Psychological Association 1/75 people experience Panic Disorder with symptoms beginning in late teens or early adulthood, though some children also experience it.
It is possible to have a panic attack without developing Panic Disorder. It becomes a disorder when attacks are recurrent (4 or more times), The individual develops the worry that they are going to have another attack, that it will kill them, embarrass them or drive them crazy. So they develop the fear of a panic attack itself on a daily basis. Panic Disorder, for this reason, is often accompanied by Agoraphobia–a fear of going out of the home, being in public, large open spaces, or any area from which escape is difficult such as elevators, staircases, buses, bridges, or freeways. Panic Disorder may or may not be accompanied by Agoraphobia, but when Agoraphobia is present daily functioning is impaired. It may result in the individual losing friends, alienating family, or losing employment.
It is not fully known what causes panic attacks. It is evident that panic attacks run in families. Panic attacks can be caused by a hyper-exaggerated response to bodily sensations. For example; normal speeding up of heart rate can be misinterpreted as a heart attack coming on. This fear of impending death creates an exaggerated anxiety response in those with Panic Disorder. The person feels as they would in the face of death. Some people know what causes their panic attacks, and some people do not. They come out of blue for them, and this in itself can be a terrifying and traumatic experience. Those with Panic Disorder often experience an increase in attacks during stressful life events.
Many individuals suffer their first full blown panic attack under the influence of a recreational drug. Some drugs that have been reported to be triggers for panic are LSD, MDMA (Ecstasy), and Marijuana. Some people who are anxious may trigger an attack by drinking too much coffee.
Many people who suffer from panic attacks also tend to be unassertive. Passive communication style and Panic Disorder are increasingly correlated. The reason for this is that that people with difficulty asserting their needs often go along with what other people want, say yes to things they don’t want to do, and typically end up in situations they don’t want to be in. They feel out of control of their own lives, and this causes anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness. Anxiety builds to a point where any small trigger creates an exaggerated response: a panic attack. Panic attacks may also serve as a subconscious method of getting needs met without having to be assertive.
It is very important for Panic Disorder sufferers to make sure that the panic attacks are not being triggered by a physical problem such as Asthma, a heart condition, drug/alcohol withdrawal, or drug side effects (particularly of stimulant drugs used for AHDH). Once the symptoms are known to be psychological, panic attacks are typically dealt with effectively in therapy along with any Agoraphobia. Panic Disorder is manageable with psychotherapy or medication treatment. For best results, most experts recommend both.
Individuals who suffer from PTSD are much more likely to suffer from Panic Attacks than those who don’t. Once PTSD is resolved using trauma focused therapy, the panic attacks usually resolve as well.