You’re lying in bed at night, and all of a sudden, an overpowering, debilitating fear shivers through your body. Your extremities begin to tingle, and you feel lightheaded. Your heart starts banging against your ribcage, pain shooting through your chest and arms. It gets harder to breathe. The world, it seems, is spiraling out of control.

It sounds a lot like a heart attack, but for many people, incidents like these happen with great frequency, coming in weekly, or even daily, intervals. What was described above could very well be a heart attack, and if you experience these symptoms in an isolated and unexpected incident, you should not hesitate to seek emergency help immediately. These symptoms, however, are also characteristic of a panic attack.

A panic attack can last anywhere from 1 to 20 minutes, and in some cases can fade into new attacks. They are characterized by rapid heartbeat, heavy perspiration, dizziness, shortness of breath, trembling, fear, hyperventilation, tingling or numbness in extremities, feeling flushed, chills, nausea, chest pain or a feeling of doom or loss of control. The most telling symptom that indicates that the experience is likely a panic attack is an overwhelming sense of fear or dread.

A single panic attack does not necessarily indicate the presence of full blown panic disorder, though.
Panic disorder is defined by noticeable changes in behavior that persist for at least a month and the presence of anticipatory attacks, or panic attacks that arise out of fear of having another panic attack in the near future. These anticipatory attacks can also indicate the presence or contribute to the onset of agoraphobia, or social anxiety. Fear of having a panic attack in a public place, and incurring embarrassment, can cause some people to avoid social situations with greater frequency. However, do note that agoraphobia and panic disorder, though there is a high comorbidity rate between the two, are separate conditions that may require separate treatments.

Genetics has been useful in predicting who is more at risk to develop panic disorder than others. This just indicates a predisposition; panic disorders are usually touched off by one of two things: highly stressful life events or substance abuse. A death in the family, a move from one area of the country to another or a bad break-up can trigger panic disorder. Over long periods of time, alcohol abuse has been shown to worsen the symptoms of panic disorder, and excessive use of caffeine can easily trigger the disorder in and of itself.

Currently, cognitive behavioral therapy is the leading treatment for panic disorder. Drugs like SSRIs and Benzodiazepines have been shown to help in certain cases, but the former can actually trigger panic attacks if the individual is misdiagnosed, and the latter can lead to dependency and tolerance issues. As with many disorders, the most important part of the treatment might just be a strong support group and education. Learning about what the disorder entails, and sharing it with close family and friends, can allow a support group to form that can take sensible and positive action when the individual begins to have an attack.

Panic disorder is a frightening force to confront. Attacks can come without warning, and, if frequent, can prevent you from living life to the fullest. Untreated, it can have real effects on physical health, with correlations to myriad heart problems. It can also be costly financially; panic attacks can easily be misinterpreted as serious physical conditions, leading to unnecessary trips to the emergency room. For those that don’t have health insurance these days, money towards one emergency room trip is no small matter, let alone multiple trips.

Don’t feel alone. 2.4 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with panic disorder, with untold more still hesitating to seek help. If you are concerned that you or a loved one is struggling with panic disorder, find a mental health professional in your area, or consult your doctor, to do something about it.

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