Panic disorder is a problem characterized by extremely powerful feelings of fear and anxiety that quickly overwhelm a person. These very frightening experiences are called panic attacks. Most often, a panic attack will intensify over a ten- to fifteen-minute period and will usually end within thirty minutes. Many people will experience a panic attack in their lifetime, and most initial attacks will be caused by hyperventilation, a fast and excessively deep type of breathing that often accompanies fear and stress.
People who struggle with other anxiety problems such as generalized anxiety disorder and social phobia will also experience panic attacks when they’re forced to do something that they’re afraid of, like speaking in public, driving in traffic, or shopping in a crowded store. However, people who have panic disorder experience multiple, unexpected panic attacks that seem to come out of nowhere. They also worry about the possibility of the attacks reoccurring and often change their behavior to try to prevent the attacks. In severe cases of panic disorder, people might not leave their home due to a fear of being stranded and helpless somewhere while having a panic attack. This additional problem is called agoraphobia.
Severe physical symptoms accompany panic attacks, such as an intense pounding of the heart, an inability to move, dizziness, a feeling of being separated from reality, stomach sickness, numbing of the senses, tightening in the throat, an inability to breathe comfortably, hot or cold sensations, excessive perspiration, and shaking. Many people who experience panic attacks think that they’re having a heart attack, going insane, or dying. In fact, a large number of people who experience panic attacks first seek treatment at hospital emergency rooms or from their general medical provider.
Although many people who have panic attacks mistake their problems for a medical condition, it’s always necessary to have a medical examination to identify or rule out any real physiological problems. Some medical conditions can cause symptoms that are very similar to panic attacks. These conditions include thyroid disease and mitral valve prolapse, a common heart condition that can cause chest pains and palpitations similar to those experienced during panic attacks.
When people are suffering with panic disorder, they may experience panic attacks as frequently as every week or the attacks may occur irregularly, with a space of months between attacks. Either way, they are probably very frightened of having another one, and this fear limits their ability to function in everyday life. For example, they might no longer travel for vacations or shop at stores due to the fear of having a panic attack in front of other people. This fear can also interfere with important relationships or cause people to miss time at work. And in cases where panic disorder is severe, people sometimes confine themselves to their homes. Most people with agoraphobia are afraid of having a panic attack in a social situation that they can’t escape or in an unfamiliar place where they can’t find help.