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Myths About Panic Disorder

Fact Versus Fiction

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Updated November 29, 2011

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

Panic disorder is a mental health condition that is often misunderstood. For example, you may hear people mistakenly refer to their ordinary feelings of nervousness as “panic attacks”. Often times the media portrays people with anxiety as overly sensitive or weak. Even medical professionals disagree on the criteria for diagnosing panic disorder.

All of this confusion has lead to many myths about panic disorder and agoraphobia. Listed here are some of the commonly expressed myths. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of panic disorder, this list can help you sort out fact from fiction.

1. Myth: Panic attacks can make you go “crazy” and lose control of yourself.

Panic attacks are the hallmark symptom of panic disorder. These attacks can lead to many upsetting thoughts and physical sensations. The symptoms of panic attacks can be so overwhelming that you may fear that you are going to lose control and perhaps even lose your mind. You may even believe that you will develop a more severe mental health condition, such as schizophrenia, which would cause you to experience delusions and hallucinations.

Even though panic attacks can be very disturbing, they will not cause you to completely lose touch with reality. You may experience feelings of depersonalization and derealization, in which you briefly feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you. As uncomfortable as these symptoms can be, they are not signs of psychosis. Some other mental health disorders, such as depression and PTSD, do frequently co-occur with panic disorder. However, panic disorder is not commonly associated with schizophrenia.

2. Myth: Panic attacks will cause extreme harm to your body.

There are many frightening physical symptoms of panic and anxiety. Some of these somatic symptoms include accelerated heart rate, trembling, shaking, and sweating. Shortness of breath is also a common occurrence during panic attacks and can lead to even more distressful symptoms such as lightheadedness, headache, and nausea. Even though it can be scary at the time, shortness of breath or hyperventilation caused by anxiety is not life threatening. Many people who have panic attacks fear that hyperventilation will lead to fainting. However, fainting rarely occurs due to panic attacks.

Shortness of breath is also often associated with chest pain, another alarming symptom of panic attacks. When you first experience chest pain during a panic attack, you may understandably believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency. Many people with panic disorder will initially be admitted to the ER out of concern of the possibility of a heart attack. However, the chest pain that occurs during a panic attack is typically not life threatening.

3. Myth: Panic disorder is a sign of weakness or an inability to control emotions

This myth can be so disheartening for people who have struggled with panic disorder and agoraphobia. The truth is that no one would chose to suffer with this condition. Panic disorder is a real and diagnosable mental health disorder.

4. Myth: Panic disorder is caused by a bad childhood

You may have heard people blame bad childhoods or anxious parents as the cause of panic disorder. Many people will also claim that panic disorder is caused by a “chemical imbalance”. It is only human to want to uncover the causes to any problem. However, when it comes to panic disorder, the exact cause is currently unknown.

Many theories have been developed to determine the causes of panic disorder. Some perspectives suggest that panic disorder is the outcome of one’s environment, such as having overprotective parents or childhood trauma. While biological perspectives theorize that certain chemical messengers in the brain, or neurotransmitters, are imbalanced in people who have anxiety-related conditions. Other theories look at genetic factors as the link to anxiety disorders. Currently, most experts believe that panic disorder is actually caused by a combination of factors that include ties to genetic, biological, and environmental influences.

5. Myth: There is no real help for panic disorder

“Can panic disorder be cured?” This is one of the most common questions people who have been diagnosed want to know. The truth is that there is not a single, surefire cure for panic disorder and agoraphobia. However, it is possible to effectively manage your symptoms through one or more treatment options.

Some of the most common treatment options for panic disorder include:

These treatment options are often accompanied by self-help techniques, such as:

6. Myth: People with panic disorder must be medicated for the rest of their lives

Some of the benefits of medication may include, decreased anxiety, improved functioning, and a reduction in the severity and amount of panic attacks. Despite its advantages, many people worry that they will be required to take medication the rest of their lives. However, medication can actually be prescribed for a limited time period as the panic sufferer learns effective ways to cope with panic disorder.

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