Dr. MJ Bazos MD,
"All of a sudden, I felt a tremendous wave of
fear for no reason at all. My heart was pounding, my chest hurt, and it was
getting harder to breathe. I thought I was going to die."
"I'm so afraid. Every time I start to go
out, I get that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach and I'm terrified that
another panic attack is coming."
What Are the Symptoms of a Panic
As described above, the
symptoms of a panic attack appear suddenly, without any apparent cause. They may
include the following:
* Racing or pounding heartbeat
* Chest pains
* Dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea
* Difficulty breathing
* Tingling or numbness in the hands
* Flushes or chills
* Dreamlike sensations or perceptual distortions
* Terror—a sense that something
unimaginably horrible is about to occur and one is powerless to prevent it
* Fear of losing control and doing something
* Fear of dying
A panic attack typically lasts for several
minutes and is one of the most distressing conditions that a person can
experience. Most who have one attack will have others. When someone has repeated
attacks, or feels severe anxiety about having another attack, he or she is said
to have panic disorder.
Panic disorder is a
serious health problem in this country. At least 1.6% of adult Americans, or 3
million people, will have panic disorder at some time in their lives. The
disorder is strikingly different from other types of anxiety in that panic
attacks are so sudden, appear to be unprovoked, and are often disabling.
Once someone has had a panic
attack—for example while driving, shopping in a crowded store, or riding
in an elevator—he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias,
about these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the pattern of
avoidance and level of anxiety about another attack may reach the point where
the individual with panic disorder may be unable to drive or even step out of
the house. At this stage, the person is said to have panic disorder with
agoraphobia. Thus panic disorder can have as serious an impact on a person's
daily life as other major illnesses—unless the individual receives
Yes, panic disorder
is real and potentially disabling, but it can be controlled with specific
treatments. Because of the disturbing symptoms that accompany panic disorder, it
may be mistaken for heart disease or some other life-threatening medical
illness. People frequently go to hospital emergency rooms when they are having a
panic attack, and extensive medical tests may be performed to rule out these
Others often try to
reassure the person who is having a panic attack that he or she is not in great
danger. Expressions such as "nothing serious," "all in your head," or "nothing
to worry about" may give the incorrect impression that there is no real problem
and that treatment is not possible or necessary.
What Is the Treatment for Panic
Thanks to research, there
are a variety of treatments available, including several effective medications,
and also specific forms of psychotherapy. Often, a combination of psychotherapy
and medications produces good results. Some improvement may be noticed in a
fairly short period of time—about 6 to 8 weeks. Thus appropriate treatment
of panic disorder can prevent panic attacks or at least substantially reduce
their severity and frequency—bringing significant relief to 70% to 90% of
people with panic disorder.
addition, people with panic disorder may need treatment for other emotional
problems. Depression has often been associated with panic disorder, as have
alcohol and drug abuse. Recent research also suggests that suicide attempts are
more frequent in people with panic disorder. Fortunately, these problems
associated with panic disorder can be overcome effectively, just like panic
Tragically, many people
with panic disorder do not seek or receive treatment. To encourage recognition
and treatment of panic disorder, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
is sponsoring a major information campaign to acquaint the public and health
care professionals with this disorder. NIMH is the agency of the U.S. government
responsible for improving the mental health of the American people by supporting
research on the brain and mental disorders and by increasing public
understanding of these conditions and their treatment.
What Happens if Panic Disorder Is
Panic disorder tends to
continue for months or years. It typically begins in young adulthood, but the
symptoms may arise earlier or later in life. If left untreated, it may worsen to
the point where the person's life is seriously affected by panic attacks and by
attempts to avoid or conceal them. In fact, many people have had problems with
friends and family or lost jobs while struggling to cope with panic disorder. It
does not usually go away unless the person receives treatments designed
specifically to help people with panic disorder.
So, if you or someone you know has
symptoms like those described in this brochure, it is important to see a health
care professional for a correct diagnosis and proper treatment.
What Causes Panic Disorder?
According to one theory of panic
disorder, the body's normal "alarm system" tends to be triggered unnecessarily.
Scientists don't know exactly why this happens. Panic disorder has been found to
run in families, and this may mean that inheritance (genes) plays a strong role
in determining who will get it. However, many people who have no family history
of the disorder develop it. Often the first attacks are triggered by physical
illnesses, a major life stress, or certain medications.