Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by fear and worry. One of the most salient symptoms is the experience of persistent and often unanticipated panic attacks. Panic attacks are typically experienced through a combination of frightening physical sensations and distressing thoughts and emotions. These attacks bring on severe apprehension and discomfort, despite a lack of actual threat or danger.
Panic disorder is diagnosed as occurring with or without agoraphobia. Agoraphobia involves a fear of having one of these intense panic attacks in a place or situation where it would be very difficult or embarrassing to escape. Often times, the fear associated with agoraphobia can lead to many avoidance behaviors. By limiting one’s ability to be in certain situations, people with agoraphobia often experience feelings of loneliness as well as an overall diminished quality of life.
The following describes panic attacks, the main feature of panic disorder. Agoraphobia that may or may not occur with panic disorder is also explained. Additionally, learn more about the importance of getting help for panic disorder and popular treatment options.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 4th edition, text revised (DSM-IV-TR) is the handbook used by mental health specialists for diagnostic purposes. Professionals who treat panic disorder use the criteria set forth in the DSM-IV-TR to determine a person’s diagnosis.
Listed here are the diagnostic criteria for panic attacks as outlined in the DSM-IV-TR. Panic attacks are experienced as four or more of the following symptoms:
- Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain
- Nausea or abdominal pain
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Derealization or depersonalization
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Feelings of numbness or tingling sensations
- Chills or hot flashes
The symptoms of panic attacks typically occur spontaneously and peak within the first 10 minutes before gradually subsiding. However, these symptoms have the potential to last longer. Additionally, numerous panic attacks can occur one after the other, making it difficult to fully recognize when one attack has ended and another one has began.
According to the DSM-IV-TR, approximately one-third of people with panic disorder will also develop agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia are afraid that they will have some anxiety symptoms or a full-blown panic attack in a place where it would be very challenging or embarrassing for them to flee. This condition can lead to avoidance behaviors, in which they try to stay away from all places or situations in which they may have a panic attack.
The avoidance behaviors associated with agoraphobia can greatly restrict a person’s life. People with agoraphobia often develop groups of feared situations that are related. For example, many people with agoraphobia become extremely upset and uncomfortable in areas where there are many people in a confined space. This fear may limit them from standing in line at a store, going to a movie theater, or traveling on an airplane. Other common feared situations for people with agoraphobia include forms of travel, being alone, and open spaces. These fears may result in an inability to even leave their homes.
While many people with agoraphobia can face their feared situations, it involves intense stress and anxiety. The symptoms of agoraphobia often limit the person’s day-to-day functioning and restrict where they can work, shop, or travel.
Panic disorder is a condition that causes many disturbing mental, physical, and emotional symptoms. Despite these intense symptoms, panic disorder, panic attacks, and agoraphobia are all treatable conditions. Given that agoraphobia typically develops within the first year a person begins to have abrupt panic attacks, it is important to seek out help early on. However, treatment can provide much improvement, even for those with long-term symptoms.
Prescribed medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of these methods are the most common treatment options for panic disorder. Medications for panic disorder can assist with reducing the severity of panic attacks and reducing feelings of anxiety. Psychotherapy can aid in developing new ways of thinking and behaving that help a person cope with their symptoms. Relaxation techniques are also often used as strategies to overcome panic attacks. By seeking appropriate treatment, a person with panic disorder can learn to manage their symptoms and regain control over their lives.
American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision" 2000 Washington, DC: Author.