Panic disorder

Description

Panic disorder is part of the large family of anxiety disorders. It is characterized by repetitive and unpredictable (unexpected and spontaneous) panic attacks.

A panic attack is a sudden rush of intense fear and discomfort that lasts several minutes. It is also characterized by intense physical symptoms. It may be associated with one or more trigger factors.

The frequency and intensity of panic attacks can take up a lot of space in the person’s life. This makes it difficult for them to function at work, in society or in other areas of daily life. They are constantly afraid of having another panic attack and will often be afraid to go back to places where they had an attack.

Signs and symptoms

A panic attack is a specific period of time when a person experiences an unexpected feeling of intense fear and discomfort. Several signs and symptoms can be experienced during a panic attack, such as:

  • Palpitations or increased heart rate
  • An excessive sweating or hot flashes
  • Trembling, shivering or muscle twitching
  • A sensation of numbness or tingling
  • A sensation of “shortness of breath”, a feeling of being smothered or choking
  • A chest pain or discomfort, a sensation of tightness, as if the chest were being compressed by a weight
  • Nausea or an abdominal discomfort
  • A feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
  • A feeling of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • The fear of losing control or going crazy
  • The fear of dying

Panic disorder is also characterized by:

  • Physical, social or psychological worries or concerns related to the panic attacks and their consequences (e.g., thinking that you have heart disease, being afraid of being judged negatively by other people)
  • Inappropriate changes in behaviour to minimize or avoid panic attacks or their consequences (e.g., avoiding physical activity, reorganizing your daily life to ensure help is available in the event of a panic attack)

What to do during a panic attack

If a panic attack occurs, the best thing to do is to stay put and breathe slowly until the attack is over.

A loved one can encourage the person having the attack to breathe slowly, at the same rate as them.

Trying to avoid an object, situation or place does not prevent panic attacks. On the contrary, it can reinforce attacks and cause you to isolate yourself. Avoiding what you are afraid of creates a “vicious cycle of fear and avoidance”, since you do not learn to face what you are afraid of.

The most uncomfortable and intense panic attacks last only a few minutes. Although they are sometimes extremely unpleasant, they are not dangerous from a medical point of view.

When to consult

Do not wait to be unable to conduct your usual activities to seek help. If you have signs or symptoms of a panic disorder, you can consult a resource in the field of anxiety disorders and mental health. You will find information, help and support.

However, consult a doctor or another healthcare and social services professional if you experience one of the following situations:

  • Your panic attacks are causing you distress.
  • You have difficulty to accomplish your daily activities and fulfilling social, professional and family responsibilities.
  • You isolate yourself or limit your daily activities because you are afraid of panicking.

The person you will meet can assess your needs and offer solutions to support you in the management of anxiety. To clarify the nature of your difficulties, they may suggest that you carry out a health exam or refer you to another professional for a more in-depth assessment. They will then discuss with you the different services or approaches that could meet your needs.

To find out how to access mental health care and services, go to the page Stepped mental health care and services.

General notice

Distress and suffering may be very severe for a person with panic disorder and for their family and friends. If you have suicidal thoughts and fear for your safety or that of people around you, see the page Recognizing signs of distress and preventing suicide. You will find further information on help and resources available.

Care and services

There are treatments and services that are recognized as effective in supporting people with panic disorder. In particular, they relieve the symptoms and help them regain control of their lives and daily activities. The earlier a person consults, the better their prospects for recovery.

For more information, see the section Care and services of the page Anxiety disorders.

Associated issues

Living with untreated panic disorder can have several consequences for the person and their family and friends. Consult the page Anxious disorders to find out the issues associated with anxiety disorders.

Prejudice

People with a panic disorder are sometimes victims of their own prejudices and those of society at large. These prejudices discourage people from seeking help or continuing their treatment. To find out more about prejudice, its consequences and how to fight it, go to the page Fighting the stigma surrounding mental disorders.

Mental health and prevention

It is not always possible to prevent the onset of panic disorder. However, if you exhibit signs or symptoms associated with this disorder, there are ways to reduce symptoms and feel better.

Tips for promoting good mental health can help you change certain lifestyle habits. These changes can have a positive impact on your health and reduce or even eliminate some risk factors associated with the presence of mental disorders.

Risk factors

Panic disorder has no clear identified cause. Often, it is a combination of several factors that results in the onset of the signs and symptoms of panic disorder. These factors can be biological, hereditary, individual or environmental. See the page Anxiety disorder to learn more about the risk factors of anxiety disorders.

Help and resources

To find information and support resources or to obtain care or services for panic disorder, go to the page Finding mental health help and support resources.

Last update: October 28, 2019

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