What is a Panic Disorder?

A panic disorder is life-halting condition that branches from generalized anxiety, or as a result of a traumatic event. According to the Mental Health Foundation, around 1.7% of the population will, at some point, experience a panic disorder at any given stage of their adult lives. Panic disorder has strong links to other mental health conditions such as: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and Health Anxiety.

A panic disorder is characterised by experiencing frequent episodes of high anxiety and panic. This causes maladaptive behaviours in a person by means of obsessive behaviour, agoraphobia, insomnia and a strong belief in irrational thoughts. Many people with panic disorder often spend their days thinking about why they feel the way they do, with many often too scared to leave the house for fear of embarrassment or something catastrophic happening.

Furthermore, a panic disorder can overlap with a condition known as health anxiety (or hypochondria). It is common for people with worries about their health to obsess over benign and harmless symptoms. However, as people with panic disorder are vulnerable to worry about their state of well-being, the slightest change or physical symptom can be the culprit for triggering high levels of anxiety.

Panic Attacks: synonymous with Panic Disorder

The main symptom of a panic disorder is the occurrence frequent panic attacks. A panic attack occurs when an intense, encapsulating feeling of fear and dread overwhelms a person. To many people they seem to strike from nowhere and are perpetually made worse by the frightening thoughts that accompany them. They are often described as being traumatic, with it not being unusual for the person to think they are dying or are in serious danger. Panic attacks are responsible for many people ending up in the Accident & Emergency Department at hospital but without any logical explanation. Panic attacks are confusing, scary and sometimes very hard to forget.

The Symptoms of a Panic Attack

  • Sudden and intense fright.
  • A sense of detachment from surroundings
  • Chest pain
  • Pounding chest
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty maintaining steady breathing
  • An overwhelming urge to ‘escape’ or run away.
  • Irrational thinking. I.e. Am I going to die? Is this a heart attack?
  • Chest fluttering, palpitations. ectopic heartbeats
  • Racing thoughts
  • Confusion
  • Inability to keep still
  • Tunnel vision

Alongside experiencing panic attacks, a prevalent symptom of panic disorder is the worry that one may happen again. Many people often spend their days in a state of apprehension, where they try to foresee the onset of a panic attack in order to try and prevent another one from occurring. Ultimately, panicking about panic attacks becomes a symptom in itself.

Panic attacks are not dangerous; they are merely an offshoot of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. The confusion surrounding the onset on the ‘fight or flight’ response leads to panicky states, where the brain starts to forage for reasoning as to why there is so much adrenaline within the body. It is common for people with panic disorder to believe in the irrational thoughts that the imagination conjures during states of arousal.

How is it diagnosed?

A doctor, general practitioner or trained psychologist can diagnose a panic disorder, although diagnoses are not hastily given. Many people self-diagnose themselves with panic disorder when they have distinguished that their lives are severely hindered by panic attacks and anxiety.

Usually, if a person experiences several panic attacks a day and lives in constant fear of them, then they are more than likely living with a panic disorder. A panic disorder is known as a ‘condition’ rather than a disease because, as the word implies, the condition can be changed. It is not permanent. However, it is not unusual for people to be suffering for years with panic disorder. More and more people each year are diagnosed with this condition and the field of medicine and psychiatric intervention have acknowledged this.

What causes a Panic Disorder?

There are two causes for why a panic disorder can arise in people:

The first is that it can occur as the result of a poor thought routine. Negative thought routines are the result of a stressful life that include many worries. People with highly stressful jobs, a fractious home life, health issues and relationship problems are particularly susceptible to developing a panic disorder. As stress and worry increases, so does the likelihood of an onset of panic disorder symptoms.

The second cause is trauma. People who experience a traumatic life event can often be left in a state of shock. This causes a temporary imbalance within the brain, where the person can be left in a state of vulnerability to changes within the body. Traumatic events can include:

  • The loss of a loved one
  • Divorce or relationship breakdown
  • Diagnosis of a serious illness
  • Carer for the ill
  • Loss of job
  • Car accident
  • Unexpected illness or event

During this state of vulnerability, people can be exposed to large dumps of adrenaline which, when misunderstood, can lead to a cycle of negative thinking about personal health and well-being. This can often lead to the cycle of thoughts and feelings associated with panic disorder.

Symptoms associated with a Panic Disorder

Alongside panic attacks, a panic disorder has also been directly linked to an array of physical and psychological symptoms that seemingly serve to add more worry. Some of the physical symptoms associated with panic and anxiety include:

    • Heart palpitations, ectopic heartbeats, chest flutters
    • Chest pains that include stabbing, stretching feelings.
    • Headaches: tension, ‘band around the head’ feeling, long lasting headaches
    • Digestion problems and irregular bladder and bowel movements
    • Feeling breathless and not being able to catch breath
    • Dizziness and feeling lightheaded
    • Muscle tension
    • Full list click here

Furthermore, some of the psychological symptoms of panic disorder include:

    • Feelings of detachment from self and surroundings
    • Derealisation and depersonalisation
    • Agoraphobia
    • Fearing the next panic attack
    • Believing that you won’t be able to cope
    • Inability to focus or relax
    • Full list click here

Many people suffering with a panic disorder often find it difficult to distinguish between the symptoms of anxiety and what are seperate symptoms. Often the symptoms of panic disorder are assumed to be something entirely different and, in a lot of cases, the beginning of a catastrophic event. This is called catastrophizing your thoughts and feelings. Prolonged anxiety puts the body under a lot of stress and causes many physical side effects. These symptoms are harmless in the long run, but to the anxious person this is often not rationalized.

What are the treatment options?

At the present time the main treatment options for panic disorder are psychological therapy and medication such as antidepressants. More often than not, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is offered alongside a recommendation of prescribed medication. It is widely debated whether C.B.T is an effective form of treatment for panic disorder, with mixed reviews from people who have undergone treatment. It is clear that there is no defined course of treatment for panic disorder and different approaches may benefit different people.

The Panic Room ® is a practice specializing in panic disorder, providing counselling and advice for people affected by the condition. It is run by Joshua Fletcher – author of Anxiety: Panicking about panic – who is a previous sufferer of panic disorder and panic attacks. He set up this practice on the belief that there were not enough options within the healthcare system for people who live with panic disorder. Although his business is relatively new, the feedback from clients has been extremely positive. Telephone counselling and video-calling is also available for people outside of vicinity.

Is it possible to feel normal again?

Yes. A panic disorder is medically defined as a ‘condition’ because it means it can be changed. There are many people who have successfully overcome a panic disorder and the panic attacks that accompany it. Regardless of how long a person has suffered with the condition, a panic disorder can be tackled and beaten. Read some panic disorder success stories.