Do I Have Panic Disorder?

Sue and Jim both had a panic attack this year. Sue admits that the attack was extremely unpleasant, but she mostly dismissed it as a side-effect of the stress she’s been under at work. Jim also found his attack to be extremely unpleasant, so much so that he worried constantly about it happening again and avoided stressful situations in order to avoid having another attack. Even still, Jim experienced a panic attack two weeks after his first. Now, Jim worries that he is “going crazy”, and he lives in constant fear of having a panic attack. He continues to avoid stressful situations and he also avoids any activity that makes his heart beat faster for fear that this will cue an attack.

This vignette paints a picture of the difference between having a panic attack and having panic disorder. While panic attacks themselves are relatively common (i.e., about 11% of adults will experience a panic attack in a given year), only 2-3% will go on to develop panic disorder.

The phrase “panic attack” is used loosely in everyday language, but in reality, panic attacks have a set of common features that make them diagnosable. Panic attacks are characterized by abrupt and intense fear or discomfort that peaks within minutes, accompanied by

  • Physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, chest pain, nausea, feelings of choking, numbness or tingling, and/or feeling light-headed
  • And/or psychological symptoms such as feelings of “unreality”, like you or the world around you is not real, or a sensation of being detached from yourself, like you are “watching yourself” from an observer’s perspective. Additionally, fear of “going crazy” or losing control as well as fear of dying are common during panic attacks.        

At what point does panic become a disorder?

  • First, the person has more than one panic attack.
  • Next, at least one of these attacks is followed by a period of time where the person worries about having another attack or what the consequences of having one would be, such as “going crazy” or having a heart attack. Either in addition to this worry or instead of it, panic disorder is characterized by some change in behavior because of the attacks, such as avoiding situations that one thinks might bring about an attack.  

Here is some more information about panic attacks:

  • Panic attacks are different from more generalized anxiety which is longer lasting and less intense.
  • Panic attacks can be cued or uncued. That is, they can be triggered by a feared object like a snake or a feared situation like a crowded train; and on the other hand, they can seemingly come “out of the blue”. For panic disorder to be diagnosed, the attacks must be uncued.
  • Many people fear they are having a heart attack when panic ensues; in fact, it is common for someone who has had a panic attack to seek medical help before they seek psychological help.

If you suspect that you are suffering from panic disorder, it may be time to seek psychological treatment. Panic disorder is treatable, and therapists at Great Lakes Psychology Group use evidence-based practices that can help you achieve freedom from your panic symptoms. Stop living in fear of having another attack; make an appointment with a panic specialist today.


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