Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder in which a person experiences recurrent panic attacks. A panic attack involves sudden feelings of intense fear and worry combined with overwhelming physical symptoms even though there is no real danger present. Panic attacks themselves are not life threatening, but they can make you feel like you can’t breathe, like you’re having a heart attack, or like you might die.
Panic attacks tend to come on suddenly and without warning. They can hit you anywhere at any time—even in places you would expect to feel safe. For example, a panic attack can wake you from a sound sleep in your own bed, hit you when you’re on vacation at the beach, or strike while you’re in church. The distressing feelings can linger long after the initial onset of the panic attack.
You may begin to live in fear of having another attack and begin avoiding places or situations where you think it might happen again. This can ruin your quality of life and cause problems at work, at school, and at home.
Panic disorder is considered to be an anxiety disorder, which is the most common mental health condition in America. Every year, 40 million American adults—over 18% of the population—experience anxiety. But not all of them have panic attacks.
Each year, about 1 in 10 American adults experience at least one panic attack. And it is estimated that about one-third of all Americans will have one during their lifetime. However, having a single panic attack doesn’t mean you have panic disorder. The recurring panic attacks that characterize panic disorder only affect 2-3% of people in the U.S. The disorder usually emerges in adulthood, but it can also affect children.
Women are twice as likely to suffer from this mental health condition than men. And women who experienced postpartum depression may be at increased risk of panic disorder later in life during menopause. Numerous studies suggest that some people have a genetic predisposition for the disorder as it tends to run in families.
Panic attacks develop rapidly and symptoms reach a peak within about 10 minutes, but they can linger for hours.
Physical Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Psychological Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Because these physical and psychological symptoms can be so intense and frightening, many people experiencing a panic attack go to the emergency room or visit their doctor.
Other panic disorder symptoms can include:
Untreated panic disorder can steal your life. It can severely hinder your everyday life, career, and relationships. If you experience panic attacks in the work environment, you may begin avoiding going to the office, shying away from networking opportunities, or skipping out on meetings. You may want to stop going out with your significant other to places you previously enjoyed, or you may isolate yourself from friends.
Panic disorder increases your risk of other mental health disorders, including:
Many people with panic disorder self-medicate by drinking alcohol, taking drugs, overeating, engaging in inappropriate sexual encounters, and other potentially addictive behaviors. Sadly, individuals suffering from panic disorder may become suicidal in hope of escaping the constant fear of another panic attack.
People with panic disorder are also more likely to suffer from physical illnesses—they’re twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 6 times as likely to develop asthma compared to those who don’t have anxiety disorders. Panic disorder is also commonly found in people who have migraine headaches, tension headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, restless leg syndrome, and COPD.
In traditional psychiatry, where diagnoses are based solely on symptom clusters, it is not uncommon for panic disorder to be misdiagnosed. Conditions that share similarities with panic disorder include PTSD, obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder. An inaccurate diagnosis and improper treatment can exacerbate your symptoms and keep you mired in paralyzing fear of another panic attack.
This is why it is so important to look at the brain to identify underlying brain patterns associated with the condition. Functional brain imaging with SPECT, which measures blood flow and activity in the brain, lets you see what is happening in your brain.
With panic disorder, as well as other types of anxiety disorders, it is also important to look for other possible causes of your symptoms. Hormonal imbalances, exposure to toxins (such as toxic mold), and chronic infections (such as Lyme disease) may contribute to anxiety issues, including panic attacks. Finding an integrative practitioner who performs lab tests to check for these possible contributing factors can be key to getting a complete and accurate diagnosis.
phobiasThere is hope if you have panic disorder. People with the condition tend to respond well to the appropriate treatment. Unfortunately, traditional psychiatry typically takes a one-size-fits-all approach to diagnosis and treatment. But panic disorder isn’t a simple or single disorder. Giving everybody the same treatment will never work. You need to address all the factors in your life that contribute to your symptoms.
Beware that traditional treatment with antianxiety medications can be harmful to the brain. For example, benzodiazepines suppress brain activity and can make the brain look toxic (shriveled or low in activity), and they have been found to increase the risk of dementia.
Amen Clinics uses brain SPECT imaging as well as lab tests as part of a comprehensive evaluation to more accurately diagnose panic disorder in addition to any co-occurring conditions. You can get a personalized treatment plan for your needs, including helpful forms of therapy, simple tools to kill the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts), natural supplements, nutrition, exercise, and medication (when necessary).