Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. People with this condition may become anxious to the extent that their feelings interfere with daily life. While most people have experienced a panic attack brought on by particular events or situations, the attacks in panic disorder often develop suddenly and for no apparent reason.
Panic disorder affects about 4% of Canadians, and is twice as likely in women as in men. The disorder can appear at any age, but it most commonly appears in young adults.
The risk of developing a panic disorder is increased if there is a family history of panic attacks or disorders, a history of abuse, the experience of a traumatic event, the experience of high levels of stress, and the need to adapt to significant changes in your life.
The exact cause of panic disorder is not entirely understood. However, researchers believe that panic disorder may be due to chemical imbalances in the brain. Panic disorder also tends to run in families, so there is likely a strong genetic connection. Excessive stress and trauma may also be linked to the development of panic disorder.
Certain medical conditions, such as an overactive thyroid (i.e., hyperthyroidism) and certain heart problems, can have the same symptoms as panic attacks. If you are having panic attacks, you should also be examined for other medical conditions.
Things that may trigger a panic attack include:
Panic attacks occur with the sudden appearance or occurrence of at least 4 of the following symptoms:
Panic attacks do not usually last longer than 10 minutes. However, since the symptoms affect the lungs, heart, and other important organs, a person might worry that they are having a serious medical problem that requires emergency medical treatment. However, the panic attack is usually over by the time the doctor sees the person who has had the attack.
Since panic attacks are unpredictable, a person often worries about having another attack. If a person starts to avoid the places where they had previous panic attacks, they may develop a condition called agoraphobia. This type of anxiety disorder causes a person to avoid many places (including places with many people) and may lead them to become housebound.
Your doctor will diagnose panic disorder based on symptoms, family history, and a physical examination. Your doctor will also rule out any other medical causes before making the diagnosis.
The treatment of panic disorder usually involves a combination of medications and behavioural or cognitive therapy. The goals of treatment are to reduce the number and frequency of panic attacks and improve your quality of life.
The most commonly used medications for treating panic disorder include:
Your doctor may also recommend behavioural therapy such as exposure or relaxation therapy to help reduce fear and anxiety. In exposure therapy, you are slowly exposed to the same situation that triggers panic attacks until fear and anxiety are reduced to a tolerable level or are eliminated. In relaxation therapy, you are provided with techniques to help you relax in situations that have previously caused panic attacks.
Cognitive therapy (psychotherapy) may also be recommended. Cognitive therapy attempts to change your thought patterns by helping you analyze your reactions to panic attack triggers.
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