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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Panic Disorder

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Panic disorder is different from the normal fear and anxiety reactions to stressful events. Panic disorder is a serious condition that strikes without reason or warning. Symptoms of panic disorder include sudden attacks of fear and nervousness, as well as physical symptoms such as sweating and a racing heart. During a panic attack, the fear response is out of proportion for the situation, which often is not threatening. Over time, a person with panic disorder develops a constant fear of having another panic attack, which can affect daily functioning and general quality of life.

Panic disorder often occurs along with other serious conditions, such as depression, alcoholism, or drug abuse.

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What Are the Symptoms of Panic Disorder?

Symptoms of a panic attack, which often last about 10 minutes, include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pounding heart or chest pain
  • Intense feeling of dread
  • Sensation of choking or smothering
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or stomachache
  • Tingling or numbness in the fingers and toes
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • A fear that you are losing control or are about to die

Beyond the panic attacks themselves, a key symptom of panic disorder is the persistent fear of having future panic attacks. The fear of these attacks can cause the person to avoid places and situations where an attack has occurred or where they believe an attack may occur.

What Causes Panic Disorder?

Although the exact cause of panic disorder is not fully understood, studies have shown that a combination of factors, including biological and environmental, may be involved. These factors include.

  • Family history. Panic disorder has been shown to sometimes run in families. It may sometimes be passed on to people by one or both parents much like the risk for other complex diseases such as cancer or heart disease.
  • Abnormalities in the brain. Panic disorder may be caused by problems in regulating brain areas that control the "fight or flight" response.
  • Substance abuse. Abuse of drugs and alcohol can contribute to panic disorder.
  • Major life stress. Stressful events and major life transitions, such as the death of a loved one, can sometimes trigger panic attacks, which can potentially recur and go on to become panic disorder.
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