Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

What is are Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder?

Panic attacks are connected to a broader condition named Panic Disorder, and are characterized by sudden intense feelings of anxiety and fear that strike without warning.  The individual may feel that they are going crazy or dying and may experience a rapid heartbeat and feel unable to breathe.

Panic disorder refers to the inability to cope with stressful situations without experiencing exaggerated levels of anxiety and fear.

Panic attacks are sudden and about ten minutes later all of the intense feelings of anxiety and fear disappear. Every year within the United States panic attacks affect around forty million people who are eighteen years of age and older.

Some researchers believe that a person who experiences panic attacks has a brain that is hypersensitive to carbon dioxide which triggers a suffocation “false alarm” in the brain.  Panic attacks have been associated with phobias, depression, alcohol abuse, and risk of suicide.

Substance abuse, family history and underlying brain conditions represent the main risk factors that may be linked to panic disorder.

What are the Symptoms of Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder?

Acute symptoms of a panic attack include chest pains, difficulty breathing, a racing heart, sense of terror or impending doom, feeling a loss of control, feelings of tingling or numbness in the fingers and hands, experiencing chills or feeling sweaty, and feeling faint, dizzy, or weak.

Panic attacks can be linked to momentary stressful situations or other underlying conditions.

Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder Causes

The causes of panic attacks and panic disorder isn’t fully understood. When a panic attack happens, the body experiences a rush of physical symptoms which might be caused by an overreaction of the nervous system.

However, this overreaction might simply be triggered by catastrophic thinking. For example, a problem which may seem minor to most people may be over-thought and converted into a major issue by someone with panic disorder.

Sometimes panic disorder seems to stem from previous traumatic life experiences, such as abuse, bereavement or other events which caused severe emotional trauma. Panic might stem from the idea that the same thing could happen again.

In other instances, it seems there’s a genetic link. People with close family members with panic disorder appear to be at an increased risk of developing the condition themselves. However, it’s unclear whether inherited biological traits cause the disorder, or if the symptoms of panic disorder and thought processes involved are learned from parents or family members with the condition.

One theory is that people with panic disorder have an imbalance of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals in the brain which help to control mood. This might explain the genetic link; some people may have inherited genetic traits which make them more susceptible to neurotransmitter imbalance.

How are Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder Treated?

A combination of medication and psychotherapy is recommended. Medication may include anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants such as Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, and Celexa; and beta blockers. Relaxation and breathing techniques may also be employed to treat panic attacks. Therapy can help individuals understand that their fears have no true basis in reality.

Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder Prevention

People with panic disorder may be able to prevent panic attacks by adopting some simple self-help techniques when they notice their anxiety and panic rising.

Firstly, it’s important to breathe deeply. Panic attacks often cause rapid, ragged breathing which tends to make feelings of panic worse. By breathing in and out for three counts each, you may be able to prevent a full panic attack while you process the emotions at hand.

It’s important to remember that feelings of fear and panic always pass. By focusing on this, you may be able to prevent a full panic attack. Turning your attention to non-threatening objects often helps with this process.

Therapy is often valuable for people with panic disorder because it can help them to change the negative thought processes which often lead to panic attacks. It may also help you to talk through and process the things which typically cause fear in order that you can face fears in future without panic.

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Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
December 20, 2017