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What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is a kind of anxiety disorder. The defining sign of generalized panic disorder is unexplained, repeated panic attacks. Panic disorder can paralyze the sufferer in terror in the moment of the panic attack, and the condition can be so severe that it paralyzes their normal functioning in their life, as well.

Panic disorder affects twice as many women as men. There is no cure, but fortunately, with proper treatment, coping with panic disorder is very possible.

Symptoms of Panic Disorder

The repeated panic attacks that characterize panic disorder usually cause the sufferer to feel:

  • Overwhelming anxiety, panic, terror, doom
  • Weak and dizzy, as though they might faint
  • Unable to move
  • A complete loss of control
  • A distinct disconnect from reality
  • Flushed and/or chilled
  • Their heart racing
  • Sweaty
  • Short of breath
  • Smothered or weighed down, especially on their chest
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Tingling or numbness in their extremities
  • As though they are dying

Given all the other symptoms of a panic attack, it is not surprising that panic disorder sufferers often feel as though they might be dying. Even if they have experienced panic attacks before, in the moment, fear over the sudden onset of distressing panic disorder symptoms can, in turn, make the attack even worse.

Panic Disorder vs. Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are the benchmark symptom of panic disorder, but not everyone who has a panic attack suffers from panic disorder. Someone with panic disorder will have continual panic attacks that can be unexpected and feel like they come “out of nowhere.” In contrast, many people experience a single panic attack, often in response to a particularly stressful time or traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one, in isolation — they have one and never have another.

Left untreated, the condition will have an increasingly crippling effect on a person’s life, to the point where it governs their behaviors and decisions: first they begin to avoid places where panic attacks have occurred in the past, and then they begin to avoid places where they might occur in the future.

For approximately one-third of people with panic disorder, the condition escalates to agoraphobia, which is a fear of any open space in which escape, in the event of a panic attack, would be difficult or impossible. A severe agoraphobic becomes reluctant to leave their home and may be unable to do so without the accompaniment of a close friend or family member, or at all.

Panic Disorder Treatment

Once properly diagnosed, panic disorder is highly treatable, ideally with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Medications most often used to treat panic disorder include antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and anti-anxiety drugs such as lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax) or diazepram (Valium). If you also suffer from depression, as some people with panic disorder do, your doctor will prescribe medication with the ultimate goal of treating both conditions.

Panic disorder treatment is more effective when medication is used in conjunction with therapy. You will likely see a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy that has been successfully used to treat anxiety disorders.

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