Panic disorder involves repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). You may have feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid, fluttering or pounding heart (heart palpitations). These panic attacks may lead to worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they've occurred.
Chest pain is always an alarming symptom, because most of us (appropriately) associate it with cardiac conditions, in particular angina or a myocardial infarction (heart attack). However, chest pain can also be caused by a number of conditions that have nothing to do with the heart. And one of the more common non-cardiac problems that frequently produces chest pain is an anxiety attack.
A variety of medical and mental health professionals are qualified to assess and treat panic disorders. From purely medical professionals like primary care doctors, emergency room physicians to practitioners with mental health training like psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, a variety of health care providers may be involved in the care of panic disorder sufferers. Some practitioners will administer a self-test of screening questions to people whom they suspect may be suffering from panic disorder. In addition to looking for symptoms of repeated panic attacks using what is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), asking detailed questions about the sufferer's history and conducting a mental-status examination, mental health professionals will explore the possibility that the individual's symptoms are caused by another emotional illness instead of or in addition to the diagnosis of panic disorder. For example, people with an addiction often experience panic attacks, but those symptom characteristics generally only occur when the person is either intoxicated or withdrawing from the substance. Someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have panic attacks when reminded of trauma they experienced and in a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks may be triggered by their being unable to perform a compulsive behavior. The practitioner will also likely ensure that a physical examination and any other appropriate medical tests have been done recently to explore whether there is any medical problem that could be contributing to the occurrence of panic attacks. That is particularly important since many medical conditions may have panic attacks as a symptom and therefore require that the underlying medical condition be treated in order to alleviate the associated anxiety. Examples of that include the need for treatment with antibiotics for infections like Lyme disease or vitamin supplements to address certain forms of anemia.
A panic attack may be a one-time occurrence, although many people experience repeat episodes. Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as crossing a bridge or speaking in public—especially if that situation has caused a panic attack before. Usually, the panic-inducing situation is one in which you feel endangered and unable to escape, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response.
Panic attacks are often confusing for the sufferer. They are usually sudden and are accompanied by extremely intense physical sensations, leaving one to believe they may have a serious medical condition. Because the physical symptoms associated with a panic attack are similar to certain serious medical conditions, it is important to rule out any medical causes.
More than shyness, this disorder causes intense fear about social interaction, often driven by irrational worries about humiliation (e.g. saying something stupid or not knowing what to say). Someone with social anxiety disorder may not take part in conversations, contribute to class discussions or offer their ideas, and may become isolated. Panic attacks are a common reaction to anticipated or forced social interaction.
Additionally, there is some evidence that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction treatment (MBSR), as well as online and computerized treatments are effective in treating panic disorder (Arch et al., 2017). However, the overwhelming majority of research supports the long-term success of CBT for treating panic disorder. More research is needed to explore the extent to which MBSR and ACT work when compared to CBT and other treatments, but preliminary results are positive. In general, empirically-supported treatments that are founded on the basis of research within the psychological and medical fields are recommended for treating panic disorder.
Those who experience panic attacks are often nervous about having additional episodes. To avoid having a panic attack in a public space, they may avoid places like shopping malls or other crowded spots where previous incidents may have occurred or places that they fear will not allow them immediate access to help, such as an airplane or movie theater. This avoidance when severe may lead to agoraphobia, the inability to leave familiar, safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety about having a panic attack outside the home.
To receive a diagnosis of panic disorder, the panic attacks must be unexpected and during the attack four or more of the above symptoms must occur. For panic attacks that are expected, meaning they might not be expected by the individual but are expected in relation to any phobia, anxiety or other mental health disorder, four or more symptoms must also occur.
When people are confronted with unpleasant and potentially harmful stimuli such as foul odors or tastes, PET-scans show increased bloodflow in the amygdala. In these studies, the participants also reported moderate anxiety. This might indicate that anxiety is a protective mechanism designed to prevent the organism from engaging in potentially harmful behaviors.
Occasional anxiety is an expected part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.