Panic and fear are primal reactions, deeply ingrained in our human nature. Panic and fear are automatic responses set-off by specific, life-endangering triggers. Sometimes, however, this feeling of extreme panic—our fight-or-flight response—can become faulty. When this happens, you may experience panic attacks, anxiety attacks and life-altering terror from everyday occurrences. If this happens routinely, you may have panic disorder.
Anxiety, Panic Attack or Panic Disorder?
Panic disorder is the chronic (long-term) occurrence of panic attacks—without warning. The difference between panic disorder and normal panic is the context in which the feelings occur. If you’re a soldier in combat, a pilot with an engine failure, or a hiker confronted by a bear, panic is a normal, accepted response in these situations. However, if you’re at the mall, the grocery store, driving over a small bridge, intense, debilitating panic shouldn’t happen. Inappropriate panic is one of the main defining characteristics of a panic disorder.
Another characteristic is that panic disorders cause significant distress to those who suffer from the condition. Anxiety is more-or-less tolerable, while a panic attack (especially reoccurring attacks) overwhelms the senses, making even the simplest of activities impossible.
Panic attack symptoms include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Hyperventilating (struggling to take an adequate breath)
- Immobilizing fear
- Chest pains/tightness
- Paresthesia (painful tingling sensation in hands and feet)
- Hot flashes
- A feeling that you’re about to die
Diagnosis of Panic Disorder
Diagnosing a panic disorder can be a long, arduous process. The American Psychological Association (APA) estimates that the average person with panic disorder seeks diagnosis/treatment from 10 or more mental health professionals before getting a correct diagnosis. The APA also states that only a quarter of those with a diagnosis receives the needed treatment. Perhaps the issue is in the layered nature of the panic disorder.
The defining characteristic of panic disorder is a debilitating fear of having another panic attack; it’s fear of fear itself. This fear is so profound that people give up driving, shopping, even going outside of their homes (agoraphobia) to avoid another attack. This habit of situational avoidance can then foster the development of phobias, where a fear of a harmless trigger becomes life altering.
Causes of Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
Many believe there may be a genetic component to the predisposition of panic attacks. However, both the mind and the body can play a role in the formation of panic disorder. Specific triggers can incite a panic attack. Sensory inputs can trigger neurotransmitters in the brain that initiate a flight-or-fight response and subsequent panic attack. With panic disorder, however, there is another layer.
Sufferers of panic disorder can experience panic attacks as a result of physical stimuli as well. While symptoms like nausea, racing heartbeat, chills also occur during a panic attack, they can be experienced independently, too. Someone with panic disorder might experience a racing heart after going for a run, nausea from a bad meal, and chills from cold temperatures. The mind may then “panic” when one of these symptoms are experienced, thinking an impending panic attack is in progress. The fear of having another attack is so strong that by thinking an attack is happening (even though it’s not) can bring about a panic attack. It’s a vicious cycle.
Chronic stress is said to be a major contributing factor to the development of panic disorder. Chronic stress can have a negative effect on neurotransmitter levels in the brain. These neurochemicals help regulate and control the communication between the brain and the body. If the balance is off, communication is off.
Adrenaline (norepinephrine) and epinephrine are the two main neurotransmitters responsible for inciting a fight-or-flight response. However, the brain limits their release. Chronic stress though damages the brain’s ability to limit the release of adrenaline and epinephrine, resulting in random surges of both. These surges create panic attacks. To make matters worse, two neurotransmitters responsible for controlling and limiting anxiety, GABA, and Serotonin, can be significantly reduced by chronic stress. The resulting condition is unblocked anxiety and random bursts of panic-inducing chemicals.
Panic Disorder Treatment
While panic disorder—if left undiagnosed and untreated—can cause significant impairment in nearly every aspect of life, there are treatment options available. Panic disorder has been shown to respond well to some treatment options:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Group therapy
- Systematic desensitization
- Introspective exposure (systematic desensitization for internal symptoms)
- Anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, and beta-blockers
Debilitating anxiety and panic attacks can put your life on hold, take it back by seeking treatment from a qualified professional today.
Request more information about panic disorder treatment today. Call (919) 803-6320 or contact us online.