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Understanding panic disorder

Various disorders can disrupt daily life and compromise people’s productivity while adversely affecting their happiness. Panic disorder is one such condition and can be especially problematic because of the seeming spontaneity of panic attacks.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America notes that roughly 3 percent of Americans experience panic disorder, or PD, in a given year. While that might seem like a small percentage, it still translates to nearly 10 million people, many of whom may benefit from taking the time to understand PD.

What is PD?
The ADAA says panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous panic attacks. These people are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack.

What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort. Panic attacks peak within minutes and are characterized by a host of symptoms, not all of which must be present to qualify an incident as a panic attack. Attacks occur unexpectedly and may even cause sufferers to awake from sleep.

Can anyone have PD?
No one is immune to PD, though some people are more likely to experience PD than others. The ADAA notes that panic disorder is twice as common in women than in men. While even children can have panic disorder and may experience panic-like symptoms, PD typically begins in adults age 20 or older.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
Various symptoms are associated with panic attacks. But the ADAA notes that not all symptoms linked to panic attacks must be present to confirm an attack. In fact, some people may experience limited-symptom panic attacks, which are similar to full-blown panic attacks but consist of fewer than four symptoms. Men and women should never self-diagnose, and anyone who suspects he or she suffered a panic attack should consult a physician immediately. But if at least four of the following symptoms are present, a person may have suffered a full-blown panic attack.

· Palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
· Sweating
· Trembling or shaking
· Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
· Feelings of choking
· Chest pain or discomfort
· Nausea or abdominal distress
· Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
· Chills or heat sensations
· Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
· Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
· Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
· Fear of dying

People who have experienced panic attacks and have not been diagnosed with PD may feel as though they are dealing with a life-threatening issue, as the intensity of attack symptoms can mimic those of conditions such as heart disease, thyroid problems and other issues. Individuals who think they might have experienced a panic attack or those who suddenly exhibited any of the aforementioned symptoms are advised to exercise caution and report incidents to their physicians as soon as possible.

Is PD treatable?
The ADAA notes that PD is highly treatable and that people who suspect they have experienced panic attacks should not hesitate to report incidents to their physicians out of embarrassment or fear.

More information about panic disorder is available at www.adaa.org.