Panic Disorder

Description

Feeling a bit of anxiety sometimes is perfectly normal. However, you may be suffering from a panic disorder if you experience repeated and unexpected panic attacks, in other words, if feelings of terror and fear arise with neither obvious cause nor connection to life events.  

The frequency and symptoms of panic attacks consume the life of the person suffering from them. They have difficulty functioning and behaving normally at work, in society and in other areas of daily life.

Panic disorder is part of the large group of anxiety disorders.

Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia often accompanies panic disorder. Someone with agoraphobia fears public places, often because they are afraid the place may be difficult to exit, or because it may cause them to panic. A person with agoraphobia could, for instance, be unable to wait in a grocery store line.

When agoraphobia occurs, symptoms usually appear within one year after onset of panic attacks.  

Symptoms

A panic attack is characterised by the sudden and unpredictable appearance of one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations (heart beating abnormally fast)
  • Excessive sweating
  • Trembling
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Hot flashes or the opposite, chills
  • A sense of tightness, as though the chest was being pushed by a weight
  • A feeling of shortness of breath, suffocation
  • A feeling that the situation is surreal
  • An impression of losing self-control, going crazy
  • Fear of dying

When to Consult

Do not wait to be unable to conduct your usual activities in order to consult. If you have symptoms, you can consult certain organisations and associations working with anxiety disorders. They offer information, help and support.

However, see your family doctor or another health professional if you experience one of the following situations:

  • You have frequent panic attacks, causing you psychological suffering. Your suffering prevents you from accomplishing daily activities and fulfilling social, professional and family responsibilities
  • You isolate yourself increasingly or limit your daily activities because you are afraid of panicking in public

A health professional can assess whether you have a panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia, or another health problem with similar symptoms. To be properly assessed, it could be necessary to conduct a physical exam or to prescribe laboratory tests. You will be proposed a treatment plan that is adapted to your needs.

See the Help and Resources section to find resources available to you.

If you have suicidal thoughts and fear for your safety, or that of people around you, see the Preventing Suicide page. You will find further information on help and resources available.

Treatment

Panic disorder is an illness that can be treated. There are known treatments available to treat this disorder. Treatments allow people affected to regain control of their lives and daily activities. The earlier an affected person consults with a doctor, the faster he or she will recover.

In most cases, panic disorder is treated very effectively by a psychotherapy, anti-anxiety medication, or a combination of these 2 treatments.

Treatment for panic disorder also lowers agoraphobia. It often disappears by itself as panic attacks diminish, and then goes away completely. In rare cases, a person who is treated and has no more panic attacks can continue to have agoraphobia.

Psychotherapy Sessions

Anxiety disorder experts generally recommend cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims to change the individual’s thoughts and problematic behaviour, and replaces them with thoughts and responses appropriate to reality. It helps understand the origins of the problem and to find solutions.

Anti-anxiety Medication

Different medicines can be used to treat panic disorder, including antidepressants and anxiolytics. See the page with information on anxiety problems to learn more about:

Complications

The condition of someone with panic disorder can worsen if it is not taken seriously. See the page with information on everything you need to know about anxiety disorder complications.

Protection and Prevention

If you show symptoms of panic disorder, you can act now. Advice on maintaining good mental health will help you change certain lifestyle habits. These changes will not heal you, but they can help you eliminate factors that worsen or maintain your panic disorder.

Preventing Panic Attacks

If you have a panic attack, the best thing to do is to stay put and try to remain calm by breathing slowly until the panic stops.

Avoiding public places does not prevent panic attacks. On the contrary, it can strengthen your attacks and cause you to isolate yourself. Keep in mind that even the most unpleasant and intense panic attacks have never killed anyone.

Risk Factors

Panic disorder has no clear identified cause. It is a combination of several factors which result in the onset of symptoms of the disorder. These factors can be biological, hereditary or environmental. See the anxiety disorder information page to learn more about the risk factors of anxiety disorders.

People at Risk

Panic disorder affects women a lot more often than men.

It generally develops at the beginning of adulthood. It is rarer in children.

Help and Resources

Help and Support Resources

Resources are available for help and to obtain further information about panic disorder. You can consult the anxiety disorder information page to find available resources for anxiety disorders.

Resources for Care and Services

To receive care or services, or to find a psychotherapist with whom you are comfortable, contact one of the following resources:

To find the contact information for your family medicine clinic, your CISSS or your CIUSSS, go to the Finding a Resource section.

Last update: September 27, 2016 12:24 PM

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