What is panic disorder?

A panic disorder is a condition in which people experience sudden and repeated panic attacks. People with a panic disorder may have a panic attack even without a trigger or stress. It's not life threatening. But, panic attacks are scary and can feel like a heart attack. People with panic disorders often live in fear of having another attack. About 2% to 3% of Americans suffer from a panic disorder.

Causes of panic disorder

The cause of a panic disorder is unclear. Panic disorders tend to run in families. But doctors can't determine why some family members develop panic disorders and others don't. Several parts of the brain play a role in how you feel fear and anxiety. Doctors think people with panic disorders have bodies that trigger the fight-or-flight response. This makes your body prepare to fight or run from something it thinks is a threat.

Risk factors for panic disorder

Some people are more likely to develop a panic disorder than others. Most people are adults before they develop a panic disorder. It's possible for children to have similar symptoms. Additionally, women are at greater risk than men. Known risk factors include:

  • Caffeine intake
  • Family history and genetics
  • Major life change, such as divorce
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Stressful life event, such as death of friend or family member
  • Trauma, such as a sexual assault or accident

Symptoms of panic disorder

A panic attack usually comes on without warning. They can happen at any time — even in your sleep. While anyone can have a panic attack in their lives, someone with a panic disorder may have them often. Common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Pain in chest or throat
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden intense feeling of fear
  • Sweating

Not everyone with a panic disorder has all of these symptoms. People tend to feel tired once they recover from a panic attack.

Diagnosis of panic disorder

People without a panic disorder can have panic attacks. In fact, many people have one or two in their lives. That doesn't mean that they have a panic disorder. The things that doctors look for before making the diagnosis are:

  • Having frequent and unexpected panic attacks
  • Increased worry of having another panic attack
  • Avoiding situations/activities that you think may trigger a panic attack

Treatments for panic disorder

Once your doctor diagnoses you with a panic disorder, you can begin treatment. Therapy and medication are the two most common treatment options. Some people may use one or the other. Others may have a combination of both. Your unique health needs can determine what works well for you.

Therapy is one treatment. You may work with a therapist to understand your panic disorder and learn how to deal with symptoms. You can work on your fears to stop feeling panic in certain situations. This treatment takes time. You might not see results for several weeks or months.

Medication might help to reduce the symptoms of panic attacks and treat depression. The common medications used are SSRIs, SNRIs and benzodiazepines. Medications affect people differently. Your doctor may recommend switching medications if you're not seeing the desired results or are experiencing side effects.

Other treatments include: 

  • Quitting caffeine, drugs and alcohol
  • Practicing stress management 
  • Trying relaxation techniques
  • Joining a support group
  • Getting better sleep 
  • Exercising 

Recovery from panic disorder

There's no cure for panic disorder. Treatment may help reduce and eliminate panic attacks. Visiting your primary care doctor after a panic attack is the first step in the recovery process. From there, your doctor may refer you to a specialist to help manage the symptoms and causes of your panic attacks. Sticking with the treatment plan goes a long way in making life better and may lower your chances of having another sudden panic attack.