Panic disorder is characterized by sudden episodes of acute apprehension or intense fear that occur "out of the blue", without any apparent cause. Intense panic usually lasts no more than a few minutes, but in rare instances, can return in "waves" for a period of up to two hours. During the panic itself, any of the following symptoms can occur:
- Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered
- Heart palpitations — pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
- Dizziness, unsteadiness, or faintness
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling of choking
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling of unreality — as if you're "not all there" (depersonalization)
- Numbness or tingling in hands and feet
- Hot and cold flashes
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Fears of going crazy or losing control
- Fears of dying
At least four of these symptoms are present in a full-blown panic attack, while having two or three of them is referred to as a limited-symptom attack.
Your symptoms would be diagnosed as panic disorder if you:
- have had two or more panic attacks, and
- at least one of these attacks has been followed by one month (or more) of persistent concern about having another panic attack, or worry about the possible implications of having another panic attack.
It's important to recognize that panic disorder, by itself, does NOT involve any phobias. The panic doesn't occur because you are thinking about, approaching, or actually entering a phobic situation. Instead, it occurs spontaneously and unexpectedly for no apparent reason.
A diagnosis of panic disorder is made only after possible medical causes have been ruled out. The causes of panic disorder involve a combination of heredity, chemical imbalances in the brain, and personal stress. Sudden losses or major life changes may trigger the onset of panic attacks.
With increased knowledge and experience, we now have "state of the art" treatment strategies. These include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Exposure Therapy
- Imagery and Desensitization
- Relaxation Techniques
- Medication, if necessary
If you think you may have panic disorder, you are not alone. Between 3 and 6 million people in our country have panic disorder. You CAN get help with this problem.
Be proactive. Take action. Panic disorder is TOTALLY treatable with psychotherapy and/or medication.