Panic disorder is when you have repeated, unexpected panic attacks and worry constantly about when the next one might happen. Medicines and therapy can help.
The Adult Intensive Cognitive Behavioral Treatment (AICBT) Program at Mass General offers intensive cognitive behavioral treatment for a range of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders.
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What is panic disorder?
If you have repeated and unexpected panic attacks, you may have panic disorder. Panic disorder causes bouts of overwhelming fear when there is no specific cause for the fear. In between panic attacks, you may worry greatly about when and where the next one may happen. It can even keep you from leaving your home.
What causes panic disorder?
Panic disorder is a common mental health problem. It often starts in the teens or early adulthood. But it may also begin in childhood. Women are twice as likely as men to have it. There may be a genetic link. It tends to run in families.
Panic disorder may be an overreaction of the body’s normal survival instincts and behaviors. In people with panic disorder, the body may be more sensitive to hormones that trigger excited feelings in the body.
What are the symptoms of panic disorder?
Panic attacks can happen in other types of anxiety disorders, too. Generally, if you have 4 or more panic attacks and if you always worry about having another, you have panic disorder. Symptoms of a panic attack may include:
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath
Sense of choking
Upset stomach (nausea) or belly pain
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Feeling unreal or disconnected from oneself
Fear of losing control
Fear of going crazy or dying
Chills or hot flashes
Chest pain and other symptoms that seem like a heart attack
Panic disorder can be upsetting and disabling. An attack can last from a few minutes to an hour. Sometimes it can last longer.
The symptoms of a panic attack may seem like other mental health conditions. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is panic disorder diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider or a mental health provider may diagnose you with panic disorder based on your symptoms. Generally, if you have 4 or more panic attacks and if you are in constant fear of having another, you have panic disorder.
How is panic disorder treated?
Treatment may include:
Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medicines
Counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy
Treatment for panic disorders is often very effective. Treatment will help you learn to recognize that the symptoms are not life-threatening. You will also learn coping skills and ways to relax. This can help decrease the intensity and length of the panic attack.
What are possible complications of panic disorder?
As the panic gets worse and attacks last longer, you may find it very hard to cope with everyday life, keep a job, or function in social settings. You may fear going into places where it may be hard to escape or you feel trapped. Some people can’t leave their home. They fear that help is not available. Or they fear they will be forced into a situation that will trigger an attack.
People with this condition may also abuse alcohol or drugs to relieve stress.
Key points about panic disorder
Panic disorder causes bouts of overwhelming fear when there is no specific cause.
Symptoms may include pounding heart, sweating, shaking, upset stomach, feeling of choking, and numbness.
It is a common disorder and can often lead to depression.
You may become so afraid of when the next panic attack may happen that you can’t cope with regular tasks.
Treatment includes anti-anxiety medicines and antidepressants along with cognitive behavioral therapy.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
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