Our bodies react to haunted houses, dark alleys, and threatening tornadoes or hurricanes automatically, our heart rate starts racing, our breathing becoming erratic. This flight-or-fright response alerts us to danger, moves us away from it quickly and toward safety.
The body’s flight-or-response mechanism is similar to a house’s security system. But there are times when a house’s security system malfunctions, going off when there isn’t an intruder or threat of any kind. Similarly, all homeowners have at one time had their smoke detectors go off when batteries run low or wiring becomes damaged – no smoke anywhere in the room.
When a person’s flight-or-fright system malfunctions, a terrifying physiological process occurs. Called a panic attack, this process lasts on average 10 minutes, but the effects can linger for as long as 30 minutes. Intense fear grips the body, squeezing shut airways, making blood roil – caused by an adrenaline surge - and contracting intestines and other organs. For those who have experienced panic attacks, they struggle to find the words to describe the terror they experienced during the attacks.
Panic Attack or Panic Disorder?
Panic attacks come on suddenly, out-of-nowhere, and for no apparent reason. A mother driving her child to soccer practice, for example, can have an attack, as well as an employee sitting in a department meeting. A teacher with years of experience suddenly feels overwhelming panic while giving a history lecture, or a student feels it sitting in a school assembly, or a new father as he shops for groceries. The presence of real danger is completely absent from these experiences, yet fear can overtake and consume individuals.
This sudden attack of fear can happen once every few months, or only once in a lifetime. Panic attacks that start occurring repeatedly, however, turn into a panic disorder.
Additionally, an individual suffering with a different type of anxiety disorder can experience a panic attack, but that does not specifically translate into panic disorder. For example, someone with a specific phobia could experience a panic attack during exposure to the item feared, or an individual with post-traumatic stress disorder could experience panic while reliving a painful, traumatic memory.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, defines panic disorder as a state of having experienced unexpected, recurrent panic attacks with one of the attacks being followed by one or more months fearing the onslaught of another attack. This worry over repeated attacks includes behavioral changes related to the attacks.
When fears of crowds and public places, and fears of experiencing “fear” or panic become especially intense and unmanageable, some individuals stay locked inside their homes or apartments. They find alternatives to going out at all, such as having someone else do their grocery shopping, and other errands.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) website states that panic attacks, also called anxiety attacks, have certain characteristics or symptoms. If four of the following symptoms are present, an individual probably experienced an attack:
- Profuse sweating
- Shaking or trembling
- Desperately wanting to escape
- Racing or palpitating hearth
- Feeling as if lungs are collapsing
- Intense chest pain similar to a having a heart attack
- Stomach or abdominal pain
- A sense of approaching danger
- Unable to swallow similar to choking feelings
- Becoming dizzy or feeling faint
- A state of stepping outside of oneself, of unreality
- Scared of the lost of control or feeling “crazy”
- A fear of impending death
- Pins and needles or tingling sensations
- Hot flashes or chills
The ADAA estimates that about 6 million American adults have panic disorder. While panic attacks can occur at any developmental stage, panic disorder usually develops from mid-adolescence through age 40. The disorder also strikes more women than men.
Scientists and mental health professionals aren’t sure of what causes panic disorder. Some theorize that a change in brain chemistry initiated through a life stressor or environmental change could be the cause. Significant life stress as witnessed by a serious illness of oneself or a family member, or the death of a loved one are all possible events that could kick off panic disorder.
Other factors that could lead to the disorder are significant changes in lifestyle, such as getting divorced or having a baby. And a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse has also been highly associated with panic disorder. Trauma, as experienced through war, natural disaster, or a serious crime such as rape, is also correlated with developing panic attacks that lead to panic disorder.
Treatment for Panic Disorder
Mental health professionals treat panic disorder with psychotherapy, more specifically cognitive behavioral therapy. For more information see anxiety treatments and anxiety counseling. In some cases, medications are also prescribed in combination with psychotherapy.
All forms of treatment have proven to be highly successful, and those with the disorder are encouraged to seek treatment. Many individuals are unaware that interventions exist to help manage this condition. They begin altering their lives, refusing to get help or even acknowledge their condition. Instead, they avoid situations where they experienced the panic attack, and this avoidance affects careers, relationships, educational goals, and other family members’ well being.
For more information on how to manage and break the cycle of panic attacks, see the article Overcoming Panic Attacks.
If you have a passion for helping those with anxiety disorders such as panic disorder regain control of their lives, consider a career as a mental health professional. Becoming a counselor or therapist requires at least a master’s degree, and state certification.