All about panic disorder

Panic disorder occurs when a person has multiple panic attacks, and develops a fear of having more attacks. It's not really known what causes panic disorder, but there are common signs and symptoms that can help you work out if you have panic disorder. Lifestyle changes, medication, and counselling are all options for managing panic disorder.

This will be useful if:

  • You want more info about panic disorders
  • You want to know about the causes, signs and symptoms of panic disorder
  • You're looking for ways you can manage your panic disorder
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What is panic disorder?

Almost 40% of people will have a panic attack at some point in their life, but it's important to know that not everyone who has a panic attack has panic disorder. Panic disorder is a condition in which someone experiences panic attacks that are recurring and unexpected.

Panic attacks can be really unpleasant and scary, and people who have panic disorder often dread having more panic attacks, or worry that their panic attacks are dangerous. Because of this, people with panic disorder can end up avoiding a lot of situations or events that they think might cause a panic attack.

What causes panic disorder?

No one really knows the exact causes of panic disorder, but it's linked with times of increased stress (things like exams at school or uni, pressure at work, or stress in the family). There is also evidence that genetics might be involved, meaning you may be more likely to develop panic disorder if someone in your family has suffered from it.

What are the signs and symptoms of panic disorder?

The main sign of panic disorder is the repeated and unexpected experience of panic attacks. A panic attack is an intense feeling of fear, along with changes in the body and in thoughts, such as:

  • Pounding or speeding heart
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain
  • Upset stomach
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling unusually hot or cold
  • Tingling or feeling numb
  • Feeling like things are unreal, or feeling detached from yourself
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying

Some of these symptoms can be brought on by certain drugs, or can be due to a medical condition. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor.

People with panic disorder are also often really scared of having more panic attacks, or worry about what they think their panic attacks may lead to (such as having a heart attack, or losing control). Sometimes people with panic disorder do certain things to avoid panic attacks (like avoiding exercising, or crowded places, or unfamiliar situations). When someone with panic disorder is avoiding places or situations so much that it's really interfering negatively with their lives, this is called agoraphobia.

Managing panic disorder

Given that panic attacks seem to occur more in stressful life times, it can be helpful to manage your overall level of anxiety. 

Exercise and health: Regular exercise, cutting down on caffeine, alcohol, and drugs, and learning relaxation techniques can all help.

Psychological treatments such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), are effective in helping overcome panic disorder. CBT focuses on changing the thoughts and fears about symptoms of panic, and the way you deal with your panic symptoms. By gradually and safely exposing you to your panic symptoms and triggers, CBT can help you to learn that the symptoms aren’t dangerous, and can be controlled.

Medication: Your doctor can talk to you about which medication could help you, and what the side effects might be.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 06 August, 2015
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