Panic Disorder is a serious condition that around one out of every 75 people might experience. It usually appears during the teens or early adulthood, and while the exact causes are unclear, there does seem to be a connection with major life transitions that are potentially stressful: graduating from college, getting married, having a first child, and so on. There is also some evidence for a genetic predisposition; if a family member has suffered from panic disorder, you have an increased risk of suffering from it yourself, especially during a time in your life that is particularly stressful.
A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason. It is far more intense than the feeling of being “stressed out” that most people experience. Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- racing heartbeat
- difficulty breathing, feeling as though you “can’t get enough air”
- terror that is almost paralyzing
- dizziness, light-headedness or nausea
- trembling, sweating, shaking
- choking, chest pains
- hot flashes, or sudden chills
- tingling in fingers or toes (“pins and needles”)
- fear that you’re going to go crazy or are about to die
You probably recognize this as the classic “flight or fight” response that human beings experience when we are in a situation of danger. But during a panic attack, these symptoms seem to rise from out of nowhere. They occur in seemingly harmless situations–they can even happen while you are asleep.
In addition to the above symptoms, a panic attack is marked by the following conditions:
- it occurs suddenly, without any warning and without any way to stop it.
- the level of fear is way out of proportion to the actual situation; often, in fact, it’s completely unrelated.
- it passes in a few minutes; the body cannot sustain the “fight or flight” response for longer than that. However, repeated attacks can continue to recur for hours.
A panic attack is not dangerous, but it can be terrifying, largely because it feels “crazy” and “out of control.” Panic disorder is frightening because of the panic attacks associated with it, and also because it often leads to other complications such as phobias, depression, substance abuse, medical complications, even suicide. Its effects can range from mild word or social impairment to a total inability to face the outside world.
In fact, the phobias that people with panic disorder develop do not come from fears of actual objects or events, but rather from fear of having another attack. In these cases, people will avoid certain objects or situations because they fear that these things will trigger another attack.