Panic Disorder – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Panic disorder is a common condition in which a person has episodes of intense fear or anxiety that occur suddenly. At least 1.6 percent of adult Americans, or 3 million people, will have panic disorder at some time in their lives. The disorder is strikingly different from other types of anxiety in that panic attacks are so sudden, appear to be unprovoked, and are often disabling. Panic disorder typically develops between the ages of 15 and 24, especially for men. However, it can also begin in the 30s and 40s, especially for women. The prevalence of panic disorder seems to be increasing in younger generations.


Panic disorders can be triggered by stressful life events. From this, we theorize that panic disorder has psychological causes. Specifically, panic attacks are associated with recent loss or separation, or major life transitions of any sort. It can be constructive to probe for environmental factors that trigger panic attacks in some people. For example, in susceptible persons, attacks may occur during or within 6 months of such stressful life events as the death of a loved one, divorce, geographic relocation, childbirth, or surgery. Panic attacks can also be triggered by large doses of caffeine, some cold medicines, and cocaine and marijuana. If someone has a substance abuse problem, it will have to be treated before panic disorder can be addressed effectively.


The main symptom of a panic attack is an overwhelming feeling of fear or anxiety, along with physical reactions. The symptoms come on suddenly, often unexpectedly, and the intensity usually peaks within 10 minutes.

Symptoms of a panic attack may include-

* Rapid breathing (hyperventilation), shortness of breath, or feeling “smothered.”
* A pounding or racing heart or an irregular heartbeat.
* Chest pain.
* Lightheadedness.
* Sweating.
* A choking feeling.
* Nausea or an upset stomach.
* Dizziness, shaking, or trembling.
* Numbness or tingling.
* Chills or hot flashes.
* Fear that you are going to die, lose control.
* Feelings of being detached from yourself or from reality.


Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy. There is preliminary evidence that aerobic exercise may have a calming effect.

It is believed that the most effective treatment for panic disorder is a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapies. Cognitive therapy can help the patient identify possible triggers for attacks. Once the patient understands that his or her thinking patterns contribute to the symptoms, and that the attack is independent of the trigger, the trigger loses some of its power to spark an attack. Cognitive therapy teaches patients to react differently to the situations that trigger attacks. Patients identify the triggers, and confront them, trying to alter their anxious thinking.