Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent and unpredictable bursts of terror known as panic attacks. A panic attack is accompanied by physical symptoms that may feel similar to a heart attack or other life-threatening condition.
Intense anxiety often develops between episodes of panic. As panic attacks become more frequent, people begin avoiding situations that could trigger them. Panic attacks can lead to agoraphobia. This is a fear of being trapped in places or situations where escape could be difficult or impossible.
Scientists continue to look for the exact cause or causes of panic disorder. It is believed to be related to:
Factors that may increase the risk of panic disorder include:
Panic attacks usually occur unexpectedly and repeatedly. They include many of the following symptoms:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will also be done. Since some panic disorder symptoms are similar to heart, digestive, and/or thyroid problems, a physical exam and tests can rule out an underlying condition that you may have.
Tell your doctor about your physical symptoms and how the symptoms make you feel. Your doctor will want to know if the panic attacks interfere with your normal activities. You should also tell your doctor if you:
The goal of treatment is to decrease the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. Treatment options include:
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can prepare you for situations that may trigger panic attacks. Therapy focuses on:
Certain antidepressants can be used to help treat panic disorder. Medicines approved for this purpose include:
Your doctor may need to try different antidepressants before finding the one that works best for you. It may also take several weeks before your symptoms start to improve.
Anti-anxiety medicines called benzodiazepines may be prescribed to prevent panic attacks. These medicines may also be given to stop a panic attack. Examples of benzodiazepines include:
Note: Benzodiazepines can be habit-forming.
Studies have found that people with panic disorder get the most benefit from a combination of treatment—therapy plus medicine.
Some people find that avoiding caffeine may help reduce panic attacks. Caffeine is found in many products, like coffee, tea, chocolate, and soft drinks.
You may be able to reduce your chance of having a panic disorder by:
Anxiety Disorders Association of America
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Answers to your questions about panic disorder. American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/panic-disorder.aspx . Accessed August 27, 2012.
Antidepressant use in children, adolescents, and adults. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov... . Published May 22, 2009. Accessed August 27, 2012.
Panic disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php . Updated April 23, 2012. Accessed August 27, 2012.
Panic disorder and agoraphobia. Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. Available at: http://www.adaa.or... . Accessed August 27, 2012.
8/22/2006 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php : Furukawa TA, Watanabe N, Churchill R. Psychotherapy plus antidepressant for panic disorder with or without agoraphobia: systematic review. Br J Psychiatry . 2006;188:305-312.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Last Updated: 09/10/2012
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