Panic Disorder

"I was driving to my friend's house when all of a sudden, I felt a rush of terror. My body and mind seemed to go out of control. My heart started to pound, I was hot and shaking and I had trouble breathing. This is it, I thought. I'm dying." —J.M.

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear or terror that typically peaks and subsides within a few minutes. It is thought that the body's "fight or flight" response triggers such episodes. This response was very helpful to us in ancient times, when we needed the energy to escape from dangers like saber tooth tigers. Nowadays, however, this internal emergency system can be triggered for no apparent reason, resulting in a panic attack. Episodes of panic seemingly come "out of the blue" which makes them so bewildering.

Symptoms

A panic attack usually involves at least four of the following symptoms:

  • racing heart or palpitations
  • tightness or pain in chest
  • shortness of breath
  • choking sensations
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • nausea or abdominal distress
  • numbness or tingling in extremities
  • trembling or shaking
  • feelings of unreality or depersonalization
  • hot flashes or chills

Since these symptoms mimic the signs of a serious physical illness, people with panic attacks often fear that they are dying, having a heart attack, or even losing their sanity. Because of this, they often rush to the hospital or to their physician in an effort to figure out what's wrong with them.

People may become so afraid of another panic attack that they become hypervigilant, scanning their bodies for possible signs of another attack. This constant surveillance of the body, in turn, perpetuates feelings of anxiety.

Please note: While anxiety is not physically harmful to you, you should visit your physician to ensure your symptoms aren't related to any medical problem.

What is a Panic Disorder?

A Panic Disorder is characterized by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks accompanied by a persistent fear of further attacks. As a result, people may begin to avoid places or situations where their panic attacks have occurred, believing that their panic was triggered by those places or situations. If their fear and avoidance continues, their lives can become quite limited, and they may be unable to accomplish once routine tasks. When one's daily functioning is compromised by feelings of anxiety, this is known as a Panic Disorder.

What is Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is the fear of being in a public place, seemingly far from help, if a panic attack occurs. Sufferers often believe their home is the only safe place to be if panic strikes. Be assured this is not the case, however. While panic attacks are uncomfortable, they are not dangerous, and it is safe to have one wherever you may be. The feelings will pass, no matter where you are.

How Does Agoraphobia Develop?

Once someone has had a panic attack in a specific place –for example while driving their car, or while in an elevator or in a shopping mall –they may attribute their attack to those particular places and then begin avoiding them for fear of future attacks. This avoidant behaviour can reach a level where the person becomes completely housebound or agoraphobic.

"Every time I drove my car, I started to get anxious. What if 'one of those' happened again? What if I had a heart attack, crashed my car and hurt others? I was so panicky, I finally stopped driving to get relief. Now I had to depend on my friends to get around and I hated that. The panic then began when I was out with friends so I found excuses to stay at home. I was also missing work more often and I became very depressed as I saw my life slipping away."

Treatment for Panic Disorder

The good news is, Panic Disorder is among the most treatable mental health problems. Effective treatments involve cognitive behavioural therapy and/or medication.

"I took the ADAM course —we began to understand that panic attacks feel terrible but are not life-threatening. What a relief to hear those words! We also learned ways to calm ourselves when we're anxious. We gradually exposed ourselves to our fears and in a few weeks, I was able to accomplish things I never thought possible. It has made a huge difference —my days are no longer controlled by fear and panic. I HAVE MY LIFE BACK!" —P.L.