Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that produces real physical symptoms. It is characterized by sudden attacks of terror, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweating, weakness, dizziness, or lightheadedness. During these attacks, people may flush or feel chilled; their hands may tingle or feel numb; and they may experience nausea, chest pain, or smothering sensations. Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control.
A fear of the physical symptoms that accompany a panic attack is also common. People having panic attacks may believe they are having heart attacks, losing their minds, or on the verge of death. Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep and the timing is not predictable. An attack usually peaks within 10 minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer. Between episodes the person may worry intensely and dread the next attack.
Panic disorder affects about 6 million American adults and is twice as common in women as men. Panic attacks often begin in late adolescence or early adulthood, but not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder. Many people have just one attack and never have another. The tendency to develop panic attacks appears to be inherited.
People who have full-blown, repeated panic attacks can become very disabled by their condition and if untreated will start to avoid places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. For example, if a panic attack happened while driving, the person may develop a fear of driving that limits their ability to work or take care of family obligations.
Some people's lives become so restricted that they avoid normal activities, such as grocery shopping or riding in elevators. About one-third become homebound or are able to go out only with someone they trust. When the condition progresses this far, it is called agoraphobia, or fear of open spaces.
Early treatment can often prevent more severe symptoms such as agoraphobia, but people with panic disorder may sometimes go from doctor to doctor for years and visit the emergency room repeatedly before someone correctly diagnoses their condition. This is unfortunate because panic disorder is one of the most treatable of all the anxiety disorders, responding in most cases to medication or cognitive psychotherapy, which helps change thinking patterns that lead to fear and anxiety.
Panic disorder is often accompanied by other serious problems, such as depression, drug abuse, or alcohol abuse. These accompanying conditions need to be treated separately in order for the person to make a full recovery.