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Understanding Panic Disorder

Help for Family and Friends


Updated April 19, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Panic disorder, panic attacks, and agoraphobia can greatly impact a person’s life. Having to deal with the symptoms of panic disorder doesn’t just affect the person diagnosed with this condition. Friends and family members will also need to adjust to the challenges of having a loved one with panic disorder.

It can be very difficult to cope with and care for a person with panic disorder. You may want to be supportive, but find it difficult to understand what they are dealing with. You most likely have many questions about this condition and may want to have a greater understanding of what it's like to have panic disorder. You may also be wondering how you can be a source of strength as your loved one works towards recovery.

Here you will find answers to some of your questions to help you gain some clarity and acceptance of panic disorder.

Panic Attacks are Real

There are many myths about panic disorder that may have prevented you from understanding the true nature of this condition. Some of the most common misconceptions about panic disorder revolve around panic attacks. A person diagnosed with panic disorder experiences frequent and often unanticipated panic attacks. When having a panic attack, it may even seem like the person is being illogical or exaggerating their fears and symptoms. However, panic attacks are a real and very frightening experience for people with panic disorder.

Panic attacks are characterized by feelings of extreme fear and apprehension despite little or no danger. These attacks are also marked by many distressing physical symptoms, such as chest pain, shaking, shortness of breath, sweating, and trembling. Upsetting thoughts and fears, such as feelings of depersonalization or a fear of dying, are also often commonly experienced during a panic attack.

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Emergency Medical Care

When a person first starts having panic attacks, they typically are uncertain about what is happening to them. Given the physical symptoms of panic attacks, it is not uncommon for the person to believe that they are having a medical emergency, such as a heart attack. People with panic disorder may make many trips to the emergency room before a proper diagnosis is made. To be supportive of your loved one with panic disorder, do not try to fight them about seeking emergency medical care.

Even though panic attacks are not typically life-threatening, only a medical professional can determine if your loved one is experiencing a panic attack or a more severe medical issue. If your loved one asks you to be with them in the emergency room, try to be patient with them, help them relax while waiting to be seen, and let them know that you are there for them.

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Fear and Agoraphobia

The intensity of panic attacks can leave your loved one fearful of when their next attack is going to occur. Agoraphobia is diagnosed when a person with panic disorder becomes afraid of certain circumstances that may trigger a panic attack. Agoraphobia entails major worry and anxiety about having a panic attack in a place or situation in which it would be potentially difficult or embarrassing to escape from.

Commonly avoided situations include large crowds, driving, and different forms of public transportation. The fears and avoidance behaviors associated with agoraphobia can potentially become disabling for your loved one. For example, some people with agoraphobia find it difficult to leave their own homes, which can limit their social interactions and occupational opportunities.

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What You Can Do

If your loved one is struggling with panic disorder and/or agoraphobia, it is important that you remain patient and understanding. Learn as much as you can about their condition. Knowing more about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for panic disorder can help you understand what to expect from your loved one’s behaviors and course of treatment.

Aside from showing compassion to your loved one with panic disorder, you should also make certain that your own needs are being met. Supporting a person with panic disorder can be demanding and has the potential to lead to caregiver stress. Develop your own stress management techniques and take time to do the things you enjoy. By taking better care of yourself, you will be more able to help your loved one through their recovery process.

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American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision" 2000 Washington, DC: Author.

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