By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 24 January 2015)
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by regular attacks of intense fear and distressing physical symptoms that typically include rapid heartbeat, dizziness, a feeling of choking or smothering, nausea, and many other unpleasant sensations. These attacks usually come on suddenly, peak within 10 minutes, stay at the peak for 5-10 minutes, and then subside slowly. After a panic attack, people often feel drained and exhausted.
Those who suffer from attacks usually consider them to be the most horrifying experiences of their lives. Panic attacks are so terrifying that many sufferers fear them more than death. For example, people with panic disorder who are afraid to fly are typically more concerned about having an attack on the plane than the plane crashing.
Panic Attacks vs. Panic Disorder
A person may have panic attacks (usually in response to stress, feared situations, medication reactions, excess caffeine, drug abuse, etc.) without actually having panic disorder. For example, a person who is phobic of dogs and has a panic attack every time he sees a dog (but only on those occasions) does not have panic disorder; he has a simple phobia.
Panic disorder is diagnosed when attacks occur regularly and the person becomes terrified of having another attack. Those with panic disorder often restrict their activities in an attempt to avoid panic triggers.
Panic disorder usually begins before the age of 25, though some people develop it later on. Children can suffer from the disorder as well, but this is not as common.
Prevalence of Panic Disorder
According to Dryden-Edwards (2010), in the United States alone, 20% of the population (1 in every 5 people), or approximately 60 million individuals overall, will suffer panic attacks at some point in their lives, and 3 million will develop panic disorder (a pattern of regular attacks). Dr. Kim Maertz (2014) notes that the number of people in college or university who have experienced a panic attack is 35%, or just over one-third, a higher rate than that of the general population (this suggests a possible link between intelligence and/or conscientiousness and panic disorder).
Panic Disorder and Other Phobias
People with panic disorder may also develop agoraphobia (fear of having an attack out in a public place from which escape would be difficult). Agoraphobics tend to be especially afraid of places where they feel trapped, such as public transportation, crowds, elevators, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that might be difficult to exit quickly.
Panic disorder can also cause phobias of specific things or situations. For example, having an attack while driving can lead to a fear of driving because the activity has become associated with psychological terror and horrible physical symptoms.
Symptoms of Panic Disorder
People with panic disorder, in addition to experiencing debilitating panic attacks, often engage in the following behaviours:
- Carrying safety items (such as medication, cell phone, etc.) everywhere they go
- Asking trusted companions to go out with them or keep them company at home at all times
- Avoiding certain foods or beverages that have been associated panic-like symptoms in the past (these substances may have actually caused the attacks, as in the case of coffee, or simply been consumed prior to an attack, creating an unfortunate false association)
- Choosing to stand or sit near exits in public places (or near bathrooms)
- Avoiding physical activity because the rise in heart rate triggers the fear of an attack (this is a particularly bad problem, because cardio exercise is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety and eliminate panic attacks in the long run)
Unsurprisingly, panic disorder increases the risk for irritability, depression, and other problems.
Although panic attacks themselves are physically harmless, people with panic disorder are at heightened risk for suicide because the sensations are so horrific. They often live in fear of another attack, enduring a constant state of tension and vigilance, restricting activities and not enjoying their lives in general as a result of the attacks. Some people with panic disorder also abuse substances in an attempt to suppress attacks or the resulting depression.
For more information on panic disorder, see:
- What Causes Panic Attacks?
- What Are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
- What Treatments Are Available for Panic Attacks?
For natural panic disorder treatments, see the main Anxiety and Panic Disorder Therapies page.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical consultation. Those with health concerns should consult a qualified practitioner.
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