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What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic Disorder Basics

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Updated July 02, 2013

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

Have you been experiencing the symptoms and signs of panic disorders? Were you recently diagnosed as having panic disorder? If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with panic disorder or are experiencing panic-like symptoms, you may be searching for additional resources and information on this condition. The following provides an overview of the panic disorder basics:

What is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is a complex mental health condition that involves feelings of anxiety and apprehension. As outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), panic disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder with its own distinct set of diagnostic criteria.

Panic Disorder Risk Factors

Panic disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood, but can occasionally begin in childhood or late adulthood. Research has found strong familial links, suggesting that having a close biological family member with panic disorder puts one at greater risk for developing this condition. Panic disorder is almost twice as prevalent in women than men.

People with panic disorder are prone to experiencing certain medical conditions and symptoms, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), COPD, headaches and migraines, and asthma.

Panic sufferers are at greater risk for developing separate and co-occurring mental health conditions. People diagnosed with panic disorder are prone to having additional anxiety disorders, such as agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Panic disorder sufferers are also at risk for developing a co-occurring mood disorder, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. It has been estimated that about half of those diagnosed with panic disorder will have at least one occurrence of depression during their lifetime. Substance-related problems can also be an issue for those with panic disorder and can potentially contribute to the symptoms of depression.

Causes of Panic Disorder

The exact cause of panic disorder is currently unknown. Different theories examine the influence of environmental, biological, and psychological influences. Most experts agree that panic disorder is the result of a combination of these factors.

The Symptoms of Panic Disorder

Panic sufferers experience persistent and unexpected panic attacks. These attacks are characterized by a combination of uncomfortable physical sensations, upsetting emotions, and distressful thoughts. According to the information in the DSM-5, panic attacks are experienced with a sudden sense of nervousness, fear, and/or dread along with 4 or more of the following physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms:

How is Panic Disorder Diagnosed?

Determining whether or not you have panic disorder will begin by getting a proper diagnosis. Only your doctor or qualified mental health practitioner can provide you with an accurate diagnosis. Your doctor or therapist will conduct a clinical interview to gather information on your medical history, current symptoms and level of functioning, recent life changes, and any other relevant information that will assist in making a diagnosis.

Your doctor or therapist will be able to rule out the potential for any co-occurring mental health disorders. Once a diagnosis is made, your physician will be able to answer your questions, provide any necessary referrals, and discuss your treatment options. Your doctor or therapist will also collaborate with you on creating a treatment plan to fit your needs.

How is Panic Disorder Treated?

Even though there is not a cure to this condition, there are numerous treatment options available to help people with panic disorder manage their symptoms. The most common options include prescribed medication and/or psychotherapy. Most of those with panic disorder will chose both these options along with practicing self-help techniques.

Medications for panic disorder, such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines, can help reduce the intensity of panic attacks and other anxiety-related symptoms. Psychotherapy can assist in helping you deal with difficult emotions and develop healthy coping techniques. Regardless of the options one chooses, it is important to get help for panic and anxiety. The sooner a diagnosis has been made and treatment begins, the quicker one can expect to cope with symptoms and manage life with panic disorder.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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