Panic attacks and panic disorder
Panic attacks and panic disorder
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that develops for no apparent reason and that triggers severe physical reactions. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.
You may have only one or two panic attacks in your lifetime. But if you have had several panic attacks and have spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have a chronic condition called panic disorder.
Panic attacks were once dismissed as nerves or stress, but they're now recognized as a real medical condition. Although panic attacks can significantly affect your quality of life, treatment is very effective.
Panic attack symptoms can make your heart pound and cause you to feel short of breath, dizzy, nauseated and flushed. Because panic attack symptoms can resemble life-threatening conditions, it's important to seek an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Panic attacks typically include a few or many of these symptoms:
Panic attacks typically begin suddenly, without warning. They can strike at almost any time — when you're driving the school car pool, at the mall, sound asleep or in the middle of a business meeting. Panic attacks have many variations, but symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes and last about half an hour. You may feel fatigued and worn out after a panic attack subsides.
One of the worst things about panic attacks is the intense fear that you'll have another panic attack. If you have had four or more panic attacks and have spent a month or more in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder, a type of chronic anxiety disorder.
With panic disorder, you may fear having a panic attack so much that you avoid situations where they may occur. You may even be unable to leave your home (agoraphobia), because no place feels safe.
When to see a doctor
It's not known what causes panic attacks or panic disorder. Things that may play a role include:
Some research suggests that your body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up as your body prepared itself for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. But it's not known why a panic attack occurs when there's no obvious danger present.
Symptoms of panic disorder often start either in late adolescence or early adulthood and affect more women than men.
Many people have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes, and the problem goes away, perhaps when a stressful situation ends.
Factors that may increase the risk of developing panic attacks or panic disorder include:
Left untreated, panic attacks and panic disorder can result in severe complications that affect almost every area of your life. You may be so afraid of having more panic attacks that you live in a constant state of fear, ruining your quality of life.
Complications that panic attacks may cause or be associated with include:
Preparing for your appointment
If you've had signs or symptoms common to a panic attack, make an appointment with your primary care provider. After an initial evaluation, your doctor may refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist for treatment.
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do in advance
Questions to ask your doctor at your initial appointment include:
Questions to ask if you are referred to a mental health provider include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared in advance, don't hesitate to ask for more information at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
To help pinpoint a diagnosis for your symptoms, you'll likely have several exams and tests. Your doctor or other health care provider must determine if you have panic attacks, panic disorder or another condition, such as heart or thyroid problems, that resembles panic symptoms.
Tests and exams you may have include:
Diagnostic criteria for panic disorder
These are the diagnostic criteria for panic disorder:
If you have panic attacks but not a full-blown panic disorder, you can still benefit from treatment. If panic attacks aren't treated, they can get worse and develop into panic disorder or phobias.
Treatments and drugs
The goal of treatment is to eliminate all of your panic attack symptoms. With effective treatment, most people are eventually able to resume everyday activities.
The main treatment options for panic attacks are medications and psychotherapy. Both are effective. Your doctor likely will recommend starting with just one type of treatment, depending on your preference and whether there are therapists with special training in panic disorders in your area.
Your doctor may recommend a combination of medication and psychotherapy if you:
If one medication doesn't work well for you, your doctor may recommend switching to another or combining certain medications to boost their effectiveness. Keep in mind that it can take several weeks after first starting a medication to notice an improvement in your symptoms. All medications have a risk of side effects, and some may not be recommended in certain situations, such as pregnancy. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the possible side effects and risks.
Your therapist may suggest weekly meetings when you begin psychotherapy. You may start to see improvements in panic attack symptoms within several weeks, and often symptoms go away within several months.
As your symptoms improve, you and your therapist will develop a plan to taper off therapy. You may agree to schedule occasional maintenance visits to help ensure that your panic attacks remain under control.
Researchers have explored a number of natural remedies as possible treatments for anxiety disorders, including panic disorder. Studies to date have concluded that two alternative therapies, in particular, have potential in the treatment of panic disorder.
Talk with your doctor before trying any natural therapies. These products can cause side effects and may interact with other medications. Your doctor can help determine if they are safe for you.
Lifestyle and home remedies
While panic attacks and panic disorder benefit from professional treatment, you can also help manage your symptoms on your own. Some of the lifestyle and self-care steps you can take include:
There's no sure way to prevent panic attacks or panic disorder. However, getting treatment for panic attacks as soon as possible may help stop them from getting worse or becoming more frequent. Sticking with your treatment plan can help prevent relapses or worsening of panic attack symptoms. Practicing relaxation and stress management techniques may be helpful, too.
Last Updated: 2010-03-25
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