Panic Disorder: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Panic disorder occurs when you experience recurring unexpected panic attacks. The panic attacks are abrupt surges of intense fear or discomfort that peak within minutes. People with the disorder often live in fear of having a panic attack. You may have a panic attack when you feel  sudden overwhelming emotions. You can also experience physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, breathing difficulties, and sweating.

Symptoms of panic disorder:

Common symptoms associated with a panic attack include:

  • Racing heartbeat or palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling like you are choking
  • Dizziness (vertigo)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Sweating or chills
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Changes in mental state, including a feeling of derealization (feeling of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Numbness or tingling in your hands or feet
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Constant Fear that you might die

The symptoms of a panic attack often occur for no clear reason. Typically, the symptoms are not proportionate to the level of danger that exists in the environment. Because, these attacks cannot be predicted, they can significantly affect the functioning. Fear of a panic attack or recalling a panic attack can result in the another attack.

Causes of panic disorder:

The exact causes of panic attacks and panic disorder are not clear, however, the tendency to have panic attacks may run in the family. There also appears to be a connection with major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married, and having a baby. Severe stress i.e. the death of a loved one, divorce, or losing a job can trigger a panic attack.Panic attacks can also be caused by medical conditions and other physical causes. If you are suffering from the symptoms of a panic attack, it is very important to consult a doctor to rule out the following possibilities:

  • Mitral valve prolapse, a minor cardiac problem that occurs when one of the heart’s valves doesn’t close correctly
  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Stimulant use (amphetamines, cocaine, caffeine)
  • Medication withdrawal

 Diagnosis:

If you experience panic attack symptoms, you may get emergency medical care. Most of the people who experience panic attacks for the first time may believe that they are having a heart attack.

While at the emergency department, the emergency provider will perform several tests to see if your symptoms are caused by a heart attack. They may run blood tests to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms, or an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check heart function.

Treatment:

Treatment for panic disorder will focus on reducing or eliminating the symptoms. This is achieved through therapy with a qualified professional and in some of the cases, medication is required. Therapy typically involves cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy teaches you to change the thoughts and actions, so that you can understand the attacks and manage the fear.

Medications used to treat panic disorder can include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressant. SSRIs prescribed for panic disorder may include:

  • Fluoxetine
  • Paroxetine
  • Sertraline
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