Panic Disorder

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Condition updated on October 29th, 2018

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a disorder in which a person regularly experiences panic attacks. A person with panic disorder will experience at least one panic attack per month.

These panic attacks are not triggered by a chronic condition, such as depression, substance abuse or illness.

Panic disorder is a disorder that can be difficult to cope with on a daily basis. Panic attacks are uncomfortable. They create a fear of dying or being in imminent danger, along with other symptoms.

A panic attack is unpleasant, but experiencing a panic attack is not a medical emergency. You cannot die from having a panic attack.

Symptoms of Panic Disorder

Knowing the signs of panic disorder is important for understanding a the condition. To understand the symptoms of panic disorder, you must understand the signs of a panic attack.

Signs of a panic attack include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing Heartbeat
  • Dizziness or disorientation
  • Trouble focusing eyes
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting or blacking out
  • Stomach pain
  • Chest pain
  • Hyperventilation
  • Numbing or tingling in the arms and legs
  • Cold sweats
  • Flushed cheeks
  • Nausea or vomiting

The following symptoms of panic disorder will be present within a 6-month period:

  • Experiencing symptoms of a panic attack that reach a peak and decline within 10 minutes
  • Experiencing at least 1 panic attack per month
  • Fear and avoidance of things that may trigger a panic attack
  • Feeling helpless to stop or prevent a panic attack
  • Maladaptive changing of behavior to prevent future panic attacks

Causes and Risk Factors of Panic Disorder

Mental health

A person is at increased risk of panic disorder if he or she has a history of other mental health disorders, like:

Family History

Having a direct family member with an anxiety disorder or mood disorder increases risk of developing panic disorder. A direct family member can be a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle.

Research supports there is a genetic link with anxiety disorders. This means a person with panic disorder likely has a direct family member who also suffers from an anxiety disorder of some kind.

Upbringing

The way a person is raised will affect how they develop panic disorder.

Growing up in an abusive or negligent environment increases the risk of panic disorder. If the household was chaotic with a lot of energy and/or fighting, the affected person is at increased risk of developing panic disorder.

Being a victim to bullying or insecure social environments (school, camp, play groups, etc.) will also increase risk of developing panic disorder.

History of Trauma

Experiencing a trauma or abuse can cause panic disorder.

Someone who experiences and has to cope with a traumatic event is at increased risk of developing panic disorder. A person may develop panic disorder from a traumatic event if they fail to learn healthy coping skills.

Such traumatic experiences may include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Mental abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Sexual assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Witnessing or being victim to an act of terror
  • Surviving an accident or assault

Treatment Options for Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is typically treated with cognitive and behavioral therapies. These therapies target the anxiety and avoidance behaviors.

The following are treatment options for panic disorder:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on how thoughts trigger emotions, and how emotions influence behavior. CBT helps the affected person make their thoughts less stressful or distressing. This prevents them from getting overwhelmed. This process reduces panic attacks.
  • Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. It uses repeated exposure to a feared object or situation to de-sensitize the brain. This causes the brain to build resilience for stress and anxiety, which reduces panic attacks.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). The process of EMDR is to have the affected person follow an object with their eyes while confronting a trigger for their panic attacks. This causes the brain to activate different centers at once. The process reduces the stress response. It breaks the link between memories, stress and panic attacks in the brain.

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