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Panic disorder

A person with panic disorder experiences recurring, regular panic attacks.

Having panic disorder is far more extreme than the everyday concerns and worries in life.

Panic attacks cause symptoms including fear, apprehension and anxiety, and physical symptoms, including nausea, sweating, trembling and palpitations.

Around 1 in 100 people in the UK has panic disorder with the condition often developing after the age of 20. Panic disorder affects around twice as many women as it does men.

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 terror.
  • 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 flushes.
  • 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 run in families. It may be passed on to some people by one or both parent(s) much like hair or eye colour can.
  • Abnormalities in the brain. Panic disorder may be caused by problems in parts of the brain.
  • 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 trigger a panic disorder.

How is panic disorder diagnosed?

If symptoms of panic disorder are present, the GP will begin an evaluation by looking at a person’s medical history and performing a physical examination. Although there are no laboratory tests to specifically diagnose panic disorder, the doctor may use various tests to look for physical illness as the cause of the symptoms.

If no physical illness is found, you may be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, doctors who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for panic disorder.

The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on reported intensity and duration of symptoms, including the frequency of panic attacks, and the doctor's observation of the patient's attitude and behaviour. The doctor then determines if the symptoms and degree of dysfunction suggest panic disorder.

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