A panic disorder is a type of anxiety, where the person in question can unexpectedly experience an anxiety attack. This is generally experienced as something very intensive, as the anxiety attack can be so major, that you completely lose touch with the world. You no longer feel like you are in control over your own body and can even experience that you are looking at your own body from an outsider perspective. Thus, a panic disorder can have a large influence on your life, as these people are generally anxious about getting another anxiety attack. Another name for this anxiety attack is a panic attack. Many people are also ashamed when they suddenly get an attack in spaces where there are a lot of people. This can even lead to avoiding behavior after some time.

What are the symptoms of a panic disorder?

As mentioned in the introduction, people with a panic disorder suffer from sudden anxiety attacks, where the anxiety symptoms take over the situation. During a panic attack one experiences an intense type of anxiety or an intense feeling of discomfort. You feel like you are not in control of your own body, which can give you the feeling like there is nothing you can do to treat the symptoms. To have a panic disorder, at least 4 out of the following symptoms must occur during the experiencing of a panic attack: Physical symptoms
  • Transpiration
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Feeling like you are suffocating
  • Aching chest
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shallow breathing
  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • Tingling and loss of feeling in limbs
  • Chills or a feeling of extreme heat
Psychological symptoms
  • The feeling that the situation is not real/surreal
  • Anxiety about loss of control
  • Fear of dying
An anxiety attack can suddenly come on with just one or a few symptoms. It can be so that al symptoms which you experience come at the same time, or that they build up gradually. For example, you might first experience heart palpitations and then suffer shallow breathing a few minutes later. The length of a panic attack can differ. Generally, however, a panic attack reaches its peak after about 10 minutes after the experience of the first symptom.

Fear of fear?

A useful thing to know about in a panic disorder is the fear of fear. You namely also experience a response to your anxiety attack. This reaction is often fear. Because you experience a panic attack, you become anxious about experiencing another panic attack. The situation namely gives you the feeling that you have lost control and that you cannot do anything about it. For some people, this situation can largely influence their self-image or general functioning. For example, some are very embarrassed after experiencing an anxiety attack in spaces with a lot of people. Because having a panic attack is very overwhelming, it can trigger a fear of fear. THis means that you become anxious about experiencing another anxiety attack. This fear of fear in itself can also be the cause of a new panic attack, creating a vicious cycle.

How does a panic disorder develop?

A panic disorder can have different causes. Just like any other mental disorder, causes often differ from person to person. Usually, we find that there is a combination of genetic factors and situational factors which together cause a panic disorder. What does this mean, concretely?
Heredity + situation

Heredity of a panic disorder

In a panic disorder we know there is a hereditary component at play. This means that, if people in your family suffer from a panic disorder, the chances are increased that you could also develop a panic disorder. Hereditary or biological factors in this case could mean that there is a disturbance of the balance of neurotransmitters. But what exactly do these hereditary factors contribute? What the exact influence of hereditary factors is, is unsure as of yet. Research has, however, managed to pinpoint important factors which could have to do with these hereditary factors.

1. Fear of the unknown

Fear of the unknown can influence the development or lack thereof of a panic disorder. With this we mean the reaction of fear in new situations. Some people respond with fear or shyness to situations which are new or situations in which they have never found themselves before. Oftentimes, these people also avoid new situations.

2. Attribution of danger

We often see that people with a panic disorder interpret certain symptoms of anxiety as danger. These people will, for example, be more worried when experiencing heart palpitations, because they generally believe that these are harmful. The symptoms of anxiety are therefore interpreted as worrying and dangerous, meaning it is easy for a vicious cycle to develop. These people have a larger chance to develop a fear of fear, and thereby a more severe gradation of a panic disorder.

Does this mean that I am bound to develop a panic disorder?

If there is an eventual large chance that you develop a panic disorder due to genetic factors, this does not mean that it is sure that you will develop a panic disorder. Everyone has a personal choice and situational factors play an important role in the development of a panic disorder. Not everyone who is genetically vulnerable for developing a panic disorder will actually do so. A combination of factors is needed, which you might decide from your environment.

Situational factors in a panic disorder

With situational factors we mean your surroundings and the choices you make for yourself and your environment. The first panic attack is generally triggered by extreme levels of stress. A panic disorder can develop through negative and stressful situations, for example, such as:

  • The loss of a partner
  • A divorce
  • Losing your job
  • Suffering from a chronic disease

Even though these situations are difficult and stressful, you can still choose the response you have to them. For example: the loss of a partner can result in both a panic disorder as well as depressed feelings. You can see that this situation will trigger different responses in different people.

People who develop a panic disorder are generally overcome by anxiety and stress in such situations. They often feel like they have no control over the situation, which results in even more anxiety and stress.

What are possible consequences of a panic disorder?

Generally, people with a panic disorder suffer extreme levels of anxiety, which makes them start to avoid situations. Because they are so anxious, they prefer to avoid situations which make them feel anxious, meaning avoidance behavior occurs. For example, if you are anxious or ashamed of getting a panic attack in a room with many people, you might start to isolate yourself and/or lock yourself up. A panic disorder thus often occurs combined with agoraphobia.

This anxiety and fear of fear can have a large influence on your general functioning. We often see that people no longer do their daily tasks. Anxiety can also cause depressed feelings.

How can I treat a panic disorder?

You can regain control over your anxiety and the situations which cause anxiety with the help of therapy. This therapy can help you to regain your trust in yourself. Furthermore, the structural link to anxiety can be broken with cognitive exercises. "15Minutes4Me.com" offers the option to reach the goals above with the help of the online self-help program. This program is based on therapeutic techniques and guides you daily in the treating of your anxiety!

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