FAQ on Panic Disorder

by Dr. Y.L.M

I’ve heard about panic disorders. What are they? Does it mean a disorder where one panics easily all the time?

First of all, we must understand what a panic attack is. A panic attack is what you experience in a period of intense fear or discomfort. It comes on suddenly, and you don't really understand why, because it is often in a place you are familiar with and there seems to be nothing threatening around.

But when the panic attack comes, it is as though you are really being threatened by something. So your body's adrenaline starts flowing. In a panic attack, you may experience:

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* Sweating

* Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

* Feeling of a rapid or pounding pulse/heart beat (palpitations)

* Chest pain or discomfort

* Feeling unsteady

* Choking sensation

* Numbness or tingling in your hands, feet or legs

* Chills or hot flashes

* Faintness

* Trembling or shaking

* Nausea or abdominal pains, cramping

* Feeling unreal or disconnected

* Fear of losing control, going crazy, or dying

It's of course rare to experience all of these at one go. But people who have panic attacks sometimes think they have a heart attack.

Is a panic attack something to be worried about? Can't I just let it go away and pretend it never happened?

No. If you have a panic attack, you must seek a doctor's advice. This is because you're at risk of:

* Anticipatory anxiety – This is triggered by just thinking about the possibility of having another panic attack. This can cause you to become reclusive, avoiding people.

* Avoidance – If you have panic attacks, you may feel like not doing activities that seem to trigger panic attacks, such as driving, being inside elevators, or going to work. While this may temporarily help you with the fear of the attack, it makes it very difficult for you to have a normal working or social life. It also does not stop the attacks from occurring.

* Agoraphobia – This is quite common with panic disorders. Agoraphobia is the fear of being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult or in which help might not be easily available. So because you are afraid of panic attacks, you might be too afraid to go to public places, crowds, or even to travel by bus or plane. You may be too afraid to leave your home!

What’s the difference between a panic attack and a panic disorder then?

Panic attacks are part of panic disorder – if you have more than one panic attack, and they are accompanied by at least four of the above mentioned symptoms.

Is panic disorder more common in men or in women?

Panic disorders are two times as common in women as men. It's especially common in people who are in their 20s. The first attack can sometimes be triggered by a particularly stressful event in the person's life, such as losing a loved one, or a divorce, or exams, or losing a job.

Panic disorders seems to be inherited as well. It's not such a good disorder to have because 50% of all patients are prone to depression, and also drug or alcohol abuse.

Can a panic disorder be treated?

Yes. There are two types of treatments. One is called cognitive-behavioural therapy. This has 5 fundamental stages:

# Learning – in which the disorder is taught to the patient, and the patient learns to identify the symptoms.

# Monitoring – patients keep a diary to monitor panic attacks and record anxiety-inducing situations.

# Breathing – patients are taught breathing relaxation techniques to combat the physical reactions of a panic attack.

# Rethinking – the patient is helped to change her interpretation of her physical symptoms (to something that won't hurt her).

# Exposing – the patient encounters situations in therapy that invoke the panic attacks at levels of gradually increasing intensity.

The other type of treatment involves drugs. Anti-depressants, benzodiazepines, and other medications are used.

More info on PANIC DISORDER here.

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