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Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

Fear is a normal emotion. When a person is afraid of something, she usually tries to defend herself against it or escape from it. However, some people have episodes when they are extremely afraid for no particular reason. During these episodes, they often think that they are in danger, going crazy, or about to die.

They may also have physical symptoms of fear, such as a racing, pounding heart and fast breathing. Episodes of fear at this level are called panic attacks.

Panic Attacks

A panic attack is a sudden feeling of extreme anxiety. It can begin with a stressful event or without cause and can last several minutes. During a panic attack a person may have a feeling of intense fear or terror, difficulty breathing, chest pain or tightness, heartbeat changes, dizziness, sweating, and shaking.

Some people have panic attacks only once or twice in their lives while other people have them on a regular basis (often daily or weekly). Some people have panic attacks which are brought on by a specific trigger (such as drinking too much caffeine) while other people have panic attacks without a known trigger.

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder develops when a person who has panic attacks:

  • Worries or is preoccupied about having another panic attack (anticipatory anxiety)
  • Avoids the situation or place where the panic attack occurred
  • Makes changes in her life to try to avoid having another panic attack

About one third of people with panic disorder also are afraid of being in a place or situation where they cannot escape or cannot get help if a panic attack occurs. Their fear of having another panic attack (anticipatory anxiety) is so great that it prevents them from leaving their homes to do normal daily activities such as shopping for food. This is called panic disorder with agoraphobia.