Panic disorder is a severe disorder that occurs when people get overwhelmed by anxiety and fear, causing them to become paralyzed. It affects an estimated 2.4 million people in the U.S. alone on a yearly basis and twice as many women are prone to this disorder than men. About 1.6% of the adult population (more than 3 million people), is likely to experience panic disorder at some point in their lives. People with this disorder experience severe attacks, which may cause them to start fearing attacks in the future. This additional fear and anxiety are what bring on more attacks, but thankfully panic disorder can be treated successfully with a combination of medications and therapy.
Symptoms typically begin in a person’s late teens or early twenties. It can occur regularly in stressful situations like driving in traffic or walking through crowded stores, but also in familiar settings for no apparent reason. Individuals may experience a racing heart, shallow breath, dizziness, or chest pain. A person may be diagnosed with panic disorder if these attacks occur one or more times each month, followed by four of the subsequent symptoms: dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, a choking or smothering feeling, tingling, hot or cold flashes, fainting, trembling, nausea, feelings of unreality and specific fears of losing control, dying or going insane. They may also fear being around other people or fear being alone. In some rare cases, people with panic disorder can end up with agoraphobia, which is a much more severe form of the disorder that prevents the individual from leaving their home.
The exact cause of panic disorder is not well understood, but it appears that some genetic factor, in combination with environmental factors, may be responsible for a person’s vulnerability to this condition. Other research has shown that these attacks can be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Prevailing research has not found definite cultural factors in panic disorder, since it may well be hereditary along with the depression that accompanies many sufferers. Scientists also believe that stimulants, like caffeine, can contribute to panic attacks.
Panic attacks can occur at any time. For example, if a person is driving while getting an attack, it can put themselves and others at serious risk of harm. This is why it is crucial for an individual who is experiencing a panic attack to get help or get into a safe situation as soon as possible. People with this disorder may also experience severe depression, which can later result in suicidal thoughts and actions. They may use alcohol and drugs to medicate themselves, which can lead to the abuse of alcohol/drugs and related problems.
While panic disorder cannot immediately be cured, up to 90% of people who have it are helped by therapy and medication. Accelerated treatment usually lasts from 6 months to one year, however, medication may be required for the remainder of the person’s lifetime. Combined with medication, therapy may be a helpful resource in treating panic disorder. Cognitive therapy can also be effective in assisting the individual to change thought patterns that create or magnify fear. Behavioral therapy may alter how a person reacts to growing anxiety. Relaxation techniques can reduce the severity of the attack as well as eliminate stress between episodes. Individuals with this disorder can also learn to identify patterns that appear before an attack and take immediate action to prevent the episode.
How can you help?
If you think a friend or family member needs help, it is encouraged by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to get an evaluation from a mental health professional. Sometimes, family members and friends need to intercede if a loved one with serious mental illness refuses to obtain treatment, which can be a very difficult situation for both the individual with the illness and the family members and friends. It is important to gain assistance from a mental health professional to guide you through the medical and legal issues involved in an intervention.
Family members and friends of a person with severe mental illness can help by extending their support and affection to the amount possible. It is necessary to understand that people with serious mental illness cannot simply “pull themselves together” and get better and the support of their loved ones over the long term can be invaluable to these individuals.
Family members and friends need to become educated about serious mental illness and take care of their own emotional needs. Support groups can also help family members and friends cope with their loved one’s illness and family support groups can produce a place for family members to share their experiences and acquire current information/education about their loved one’s illness.