Panic Attacks

Psychologists

Panic AttacksPanic Attacks

People with panic disorder have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. They cannot predict when an attack will occur, and many develop intense anxiety between episodes, worrying when and where the next attack will strike.

Understanding Panic Disorder

In a panic attack you may feel your heart pounding, you may feel sweaty, weak, faint, dizzy, feel  flushed or chilled, you may feel nauseous, feel like you can't breathe, that you are having a heart attack, are going “crazy”, or feel like you are about to die or lose control.

People with the disorder may develop a pattern of behavior where they avoid the places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. For example, if a panic attack strikes while you're riding an elevator, you may develop a fear of elevators and perhaps start avoiding them

Panic attacks often begin during late adolescence or early adulthood and the disorder can run in families. Some people have a single attack and never have another. People with panic disorder often visit the hospital emergency room repeatedly or see a number of doctors before they obtain a correct diagnosis.

Some people's lives become so restricted that they avoid normal everyday activities such as grocery shopping or driving. In some cases they become housebound. These people avoid any situation in which they would feel helpless if a panic attack were to occur. When people's lives become restricted in this way, the condition is called agoraphobia. One-third of people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia. Early treatment of panic disorder can often prevent agoraphobia and depression.

Panic disorder is often accompanied by other conditions such as depression, drug abuse, or alcoholism, and may lead to phobias

The exact cause of panic disorder is unknown. What is known is that panic disorder affects about 2.4 million adult Americans, it is twice as common in women as in men, the age of the first episode usually begins during late adolescence or early adulthood (however, a panic disorder may start at any point in a person’s life cycle), that the disorder may run in a family’s history, and that stimulants, such as caffeine, cocaine, or alcohol may induce the symptoms.

Treatment

A panic disorder is one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders, responding in most cases to medications and psychotherapy.

The most commonly used therapeutic approach is behavioral, using graduated exposure techniques.  This therapeutic approach is aimed primarily at reducing phobic avoidance and anticipatory anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral approaches also treat panic attacks directly.  Among the various psychotherapeutic approaches, combined treatments that include cognitive therapy in addition to other behavioral techniques appear to be most effective, especially in reducing the panic attacks themselves.  Behavioral therapy combined with medication is often very effective.

Additional Information

For more information about panic attacks and other mental health problems, please click on the linked websites listed below.

For a list of the many phobias please visit the page List of Phobias.

National Alliance on Mental Illness
NIMH publication on fears, anxiety, and trauma
National Institute of Mental Health: panic disorder
Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA)

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Panic AttacksPanic Attacks