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Panic Attacks (Panic Disorder) FAQs

Reviewed by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

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Q:Panic attacks are repeated attacks of fear that can last for several minutes. True or false?

A:True.

In panic disorder, people have attacks of fear, known as panic attacks, which come on suddenly and typically last for several minutes. The hallmark symptom is a fear of losing control, of disaster, or of imminent death even though there is no real danger present. Panic attacks may be accompanied by physical symptoms as well. People who have had panic attacks often worry about the possibility of having attacks in the future, causing those affected to avoid social settings or driving.

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Q:What kind of disorder is panic disorder?

A:Panic disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder.

Most cases of panic disorder can be successfully treated with medications and/or psychotherapy.

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Q:The word panic is derived from the Greek god named "Pan." True or false?

A:True.

The word panic originates from the name for the Greek god Pan, the god of flocks, shepherds, and pastures. Pan was part human, part goat and terrified people who strayed into rural areas, especially at night.

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Q:What are risk factors for panic disorder?

A:The exact reasons a person develops panic disorder are not fully understood.

It is known, for example, that the tendency to have panic attacks may run in families, so a genetic component may exist. Panic attacks also appear to be associated with significant life transitions including graduation, marriage, and childbirth. Severe stresses like losing a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also be associated with panic attacks.

Symptoms of panic attacks can sometimes be caused by medical conditions. Medical conditions that may sometimes cause symptoms similar to panic attack include:
- Hypoglycemia
- Hyperthyroidism
- Mitral valve prolapse, a problem that occurs when the mitral valve of the heart does not properly close
- Drug use or withdrawal

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Q:What is agoraphobia?

A:Agoraphobia means the fear of open spaces.

It occurs when people are housebound or unable to take part in normal activities because of their fear.

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Q:Who suffers more panic attacks? Men or women?

A:Panic disorder is two times more common in women than in men.

Overall, it affects about 6 million adults in the U.S. Not everyone who experiences panic attacks will go on to develop panic disorder. The attacks often begin in the teen or early adult years.

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Q:People who have panic attacks often mistake them for what condition?

A:People first experiencing a panic attack may feel they are having a heart attack and go to a hospital emergency department for treatment.

Panic attacks can have symptoms similar to those of a heart attack, such as chest pains, shortness of breath, extreme agitation, rapid heart rate, and feelings of terror. This is appropriate - anyone who develops sudden or severe chest pain should be evaluated in an emergency department to determine if a true heart attack is occurring.

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Q:Unrelenting fear that causes avoidance of situations, activities, or places best describes what condition?

A:Phobia(s).

Phobias are persistent, irrational, and uncontrollable fears of a situation, object, or activity. People with phobias can have severe symptoms and go to great lengths to avoid the object of their fear, even when the fear is not rational. A panic attack can occur in some cases as a response to a phobia. Phobias usually become apparent between the ages of 15 and 20. Men and women are equally affected by phobias, but men seek treatment more often than women.

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Q:Panic disorder is not a "real" illness. True or false?

A:True.

Panic disorder is a true illness associated with sudden and severe attacks of terror. Physical symptoms can accompany the attacks, including rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, chest pain, flushing or chills, sweating, weakness, or dizziness. People experiencing panic attacks may believe they are having a heart attack, losing their mind, or are facing imminent death.

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Q:People who suffer from panic disorders should avoid chocolate. True or False?

A:True.

Certain substances have been shown to increase anxiety, including alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and chocolate. People with panic attacks may benefit from avoiding these substances. Illegal drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines (speed) can also worsen anxiety.

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Q:What treatments are available for panic disorder?

A:Panic disorder can be effectively treated using psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of the two.

Cognitive behavior therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps the individual learn alternative ways of thinking and reacting to situations that provoke panic attacks. Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants are two classes of medications that have been successfully used in the treatment of panic disorder.

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Q:Social anxiety disorder and panic disorder are the same. True or False?

A:False.

Social anxiety is different from panic disorder. Those with social anxiety do not have panic attacks, and they realize that they are experiencing fear and anxiety. In contrast, people who have panic attacks may believe they are having a heart attack or other physical problem. They may seek treatment in an emergency department and fear that death is imminent.

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