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.
Generalized anxiety disorder involves persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities. This ongoing worry and tension may be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as restlessness, feeling on edge or easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension or problems sleeping. Often the worries focus on everyday things such as job responsibilities, family health or minor matters such as chores, car repairs, or appointments.
Genetics and family history (e.g., parental anxiety) may predispose an individual for an increased risk of an anxiety disorder, but generally external stimuli will trigger its onset or exacerbation. Genetic differences account for about 43% of variance in panic disorder and 28% in generalized anxiety disorder. Although single genes are neither necessary nor sufficient for anxiety by themselves, several gene polymorphisms have been found to correlate with anxiety: PLXNA2, SERT, CRH, COMT and BDNF. Several of these genes influence neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and norepinephrine) and hormones (such as cortisol) which are implicated in anxiety. The epigenetic signature of at least one of these genes BDNF has also been associated with anxiety and specific patterns of neural activity.
The prognosis for people who suffer a panic attack is overall, good. Some people have a single attack and are never bothered again. Yet, two-thirds of people experiencing a panic attack go on to be diagnosed with panic disorder. Also, half of those who go through a panic attack might develop clinical depression within the following year, if not treated promptly. Occasionally, a person will, after a long evaluation, be diagnosed with a medical condition that causes panic symptoms.
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.
“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.
Many people use the terms anxiety attack and panic attack interchangeable, but in reality, they represent two different experiences. The DSM-5 uses the term panic attack to describe the hallmark features of panic disorder or panic attacks that occur as a result of another mental disorder. To be considered a panic attack, four or more of the symptoms outlined in the DSM-5 must be present.
People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).