Panic disorder is not as constant as generalized anxiety disorder. People with panic disorder have feelings of fear and terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. They have no way of knowing when an attack will occur. Some develop anxiety between episodes, worrying when and where the next one will strike.
In a panic attack:
- You may feel your heart pounding
- You may feel sweaty, weak, faint, or dizzy.
- Your hands may tingle or feel numb
- You might feel flushed or chilled.
- Nausea or chest pain often occur.
- You may feel like they can't breathe, feel like things are not real, or feel like you are about to die or lose control.
- People often believe that they are having a heart attack, "losing their mind," or dying.
Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep. Most panic attacks peak within 10 minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that panic disorder affects about 2.4 million adult Americans. It is twice as common in women as in men. Panic disorder usually begins during late adolescence or early adulthood. It can run in families. Not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder. Some people have a single attack and never have another. If you do have panic disorder it's important to seek treatment. If not treated the disorder can become very disabling.
People with panic disorder often visit the hospital emergency room repeatedly or see a number of doctors before they obtain a correct diagnosis. Some people with panic disorder may go for years without learning that they have a real, treatable mental health disorder.
Panic disorder can be accompanied by other serious conditions such as depression, drug abuse, or alcoholism. People with the disorder may develop a pattern where they avoid the places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. If, for example, a panic attack strikes while you're riding in an airplane, you may develop a fear of airplanes. If you start avoiding them, that could affect your choice of a job or visits to your family and restrict your life.
Some people's lives become so restricted that they avoid normal, everyday activities such as grocery shopping or driving. In some cases they become housebound. These people avoid any situation in which they would feel helpless if a panic attack were to occur. When people's lives become restricted in this way the condition is called agoraphobia. One-third of people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia. Early treatment of panic disorder can often prevent agoraphobia.
Panic disorder is one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders, responding in most cases to medications or carefully targeted psychotherapy.