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A panic disorder is a psychiatric disorder that causes intense periods of anxiety or panic (panic attacks) that can last for several minutes or longer. Panic disorder falls under the category of anxiety disorders. Estimates as to how many Americans live with panic disorder range from 1 in 20 to 1 in 75. People who have panic attacks often experience their first one while in their teens or early adulthood, when major changes are occurring. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that people who do have a panic attack may never have another one, so having one attack will not necessarily lead to a panic disorder.
Panic attacks are not the usual type of fear or anxiety that can occur in a stressful or frightening situation. Unlike the normal, expected responses to frightening events, panic attacks can happen at any time, even during sleep, without any seemingly obvious reason. A person who is experiencing a panic attack may have a combination of physical and psychological symptoms, making it difficult for them to function during the attack and sometimes after.
The fear response during a panic attack is usually out of proportion to the event or trigger. If you experience frequent panic attacks over time, your overall anxiety could increase in anticipation of a next panic attack. This may feed into a vicious cycle and affect every day life.
What causes panic disorder is not yet understood. Research does show that some panic disorder may be caused by genetics, previous life experience, or changes in the brain:
Since researchers don’t know what causes panic disorder, risk factors aren’t well defined. However, it is known that more women live with panic disorder than men.
You are more likely to experience a panic disorder if:
Only a qualified physician or therapist can diagnose a panic disorder. While panic disorder is a psychiatric disorder, your doctor will need to rule out any medical or physical reason for the panic attack symptoms that may be treatable.
Your doctor will:
Take a medical history. Your doctor will want to know:
A physical exam will allow your doctor to look for anything that might cause the symptoms. He or she may order:
Your doctor may ask you to complete a self-assessment form that is designed to look for signs of anxiety and panic.
If your doctor has ruled out any physical cause for your symptoms, you may be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist for further assessment. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has specialized mental illnesses. He or she can prescribe medications. A psychologist has an advanced degree (usually a PhD) and focuses on treating the behavior, and may not prescribe medications.
The symptoms of panic disorder vary between people. They include:
People may experience panic attacks differently, some with one or two symptoms, some with several. The most common symptoms usually last less than 30 minutes and include:
Many people who have panic disorder may get better with treatment—but this disorder can be long lasting and challenging to treat. Panic disorder treatment can be differ considerably between people, and it may take a few attempts to find the right treatment or combination of treatments to manage your panic disorder. Once found, however, proper treatment reduces or completely prevents panic attack in 70% to 90% of people.
Living with panic disorder and panic attacks may seem daunting, but with support and treatment, panic doesn’t have to run your life.
The first and most important step is to ask for help. By visiting your doctor or a mental health practitioner, you are taking the first step to being healthier. Asking your friends and loved ones for help may also make living with panic disorder easier.
Although panic disorder and panic attacks are psychological, you need to take care of your body physically as well:
Support groups can also be helpful for people living with panic disorder. Joining a group where people can understand what you are going through may help you find ways to cope and not feel alone.
Feed your soul. Whether this means making time to work on a hobby, read a book, attend worship services, or take long hot baths, take care of yourself.
If you are being treated for panic disorder, follow your treatment plan and speak to your doctor if you are have any concerns about your treatment or if you feel it isn’t working.
If you feel you may have panic disorder, your doctor has screening tests and questionnaires that may help determine your state of mind.
Since researchers don’t know yet what causes panic disorder, prevention focuses on reducing or preventing repeat episodes of anxiety. Here are some tips:
Move your body. Many people have found that keeping physically active helps reduce their feelings of anxiety.
Occupy your mind
Treat yourself well
Keep a journal. By keeping a journal, you may be able to see patterns of events that may trigger anxiety or panic.
Treatment for panic disorder varies considerably and it may take several tries before you find the treatment or combination of treatments that work for you. It is important that you keep this in mind, to try to keep from getting discouraged if it takes time. Panic disorder is usually treated with a cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and medication when needed.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
When you undergo CBT, you work with a mental health care professional who helps you to identify triggers for your feelings of panic and anxiety. Once the triggers have been identified, you work with the therapist to break the cycle of anxiety. One way to do this is by recreating the situations that trigger your panic, and working through them within a safe and supportive setting. Some therapists also teach relaxation techniques, such as meditation and mindfulness, to help you calm your mind.
Medications may be taken alone or in combination with CBT. Both anti-anxiety and antidepressants have helped many people with anxiety disorder, but it may take trying several medications before you find one that may work for you. It is important to give the medicine time to work because it can take up to several weeks to see a noticeable difference. Some people find that medication is helpful as they begin CBT, until the therapy starts to have its effect.
Some of the most common medications used to treat panic disorder are:
*Important note about antidepressants: Antidepressant medications have been proven to be very effective for most people who need them. However, antidepressants may cause some people to have suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts. Anyone who takes antidepressants should be monitored closely for signs of increasing depression and suicidal thoughts or behavior, particularly if it is a new prescription.
Alternative or complementary treatments for panic disorder may be helpful in relieving symptoms. Always talk to your doctor about any natural, herbal, or vitamin supplements you would like to try before doing so. Some supplements can interact with medications you are already taking or cause serious side effects.
It’s not unusual to feel fearful or anxious from time to time, but if your worries are turning into intense fear or panic, this may be a sign that you should speak to your doctor. Talk to your doctor if:
To find a doctor or mental healthcare practitioner in your area, click here or visit www.healthgrades.com.
For more information on panic disorder, visit:
Student Mental Health https://www.affordablecollegesonline.org/college-student-mental-health/
Freshman Guide to College Transition https://www.accreditedschoolsonline.org/resources/freshmen-college-transition/
Scholarships for Students With Mental Health Problems
Navigating Mental Health Issues in College: A Comprehensive Guide
School-Life Balance: Well-Being Comes First
College Resources for Students With Mental Health Problems
How to Reduce Stress and Boost Your Immune System While Social Distancing
Extreme Exercise and Heart Health
Learning Your Right from Your Left
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