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Panic Attacks (Panic Disorder) FAQs

Reviewed by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

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Q:Panic disorder is a type of what disorder?

A:Anxiety. Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. Other types of anxiety disorders are obsessive compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder is a serious mental illness. For people with anxiety disorders, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be crippling.

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Q:The word panic is derived from the word pain. True or False?

A:False. The word panic originates from the Greek woodland god Pan, who was a frightening figure, part human, part goat, and whose pet caprice was to terrify people who ventured into rural areas, particularly at night.

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Q:Panic attacks are not real. True or False?

A:False. Panic attacks are real and quite emotionally disabling. Panic disorder is a serious condition that strikes without reason or warning. At least 20% of adult Americans, or about 60 million people, will suffer from panic attacks at some point in their lives. Panic disorder can have a serious impact on a person's daily life unless the individual receives effective treatment.

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Q:What are risk factors for panic disorder?

A:Family history, substance abuse, and major life stress. While there are no specific causes for panic attacks, panic is understood to be the result of a combination of factors that may include family history, substance and alcohol abuse, abnormalities in areas of the brain, major stresses in life, social stressors, and ways of thinking.

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Q:Panic attacks usually last for about 10 minutes. True or False?

A:True. The duration of panic attacks can vary, but they typically last for about 10 minutes. Most people who have had a panic attack will have others.

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Q:Panic attacks can occur while a person is sleeping. True or False?

A:True. It is possible for panic attacks to occur while a person sleeps. Panic attacks that occur during sleep are called nocturnal panic attacks. Sufferers of nocturnal panic attacks tend to experience more symptoms of depression and other psychiatric disorders compared to people who do not have panic attacks at night.

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

A:Women. While boys and girls suffer from panic disorder at about the same rate, panic attacks are seen in adult women twice as much as men. Symptoms of panic attacks in women tend to include more avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations, show more frequent recurrence, and more often result in the use of medical care compared to panic attack symptoms in men.

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Q:Panic attacks are often mistaken for what?

A:Heart attacks. The physical signs and symptoms that accompany panic attacks are disturbing and may be mistaken for heart attacks or some other life-threatening medical illness. In fact, up to 25% of people who visit emergency departments because of chest pain are actually experiencing panic. Other symptoms of panic include terror, stomach upset, nausea, hot flashes, chills, trembling, feeling a need to escape, difficulty breathing, racing heartbeat, and fear of dying.

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

A:Phobia. Medically speaking, a phobia is defined as the unrelenting fear of a situation, activity, or thing that causes one to want to avoid it. Once someone has had a panic attack, phobia may develop. Eventually, the pattern of avoidance and level of anxiety may reach the point at which the idea of engaging in certain activities can trigger future panic attacks. This often results in the individual with panic disorder being unable to drive or even step out of the house.

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Q:What is the medical term for "fear of being outside"?

A:Agoraphobia. Fear of being outside or otherwise being in a situation from which one either cannot escape or from which escaping would be difficult or humiliating describes agoraphobia. The fact that agoraphobia often occurs in combination with panic disorder makes tracking how often it occurs all the more difficult. Many mental health professional theorize that agoraphobia develops in response to repeated exposure to anxiety-provoking events.
Note: Agoraphobia is derived from the Greek word that actually means fear of open spaces such as the market, or agora.

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

A:True. Home treatment, combined with professional treatment, can help relieve anxiety. Still people who suffer from panic disorders should avoid alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, and nicotine. These substances may increase anxiety. Some illegal drugs, such as cocaine, crack, and speed (amphetamines), also can cause anxiety.

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Q:Are there treatments for panic disorder?

A:Yes. Because the exact cause of panic attacks remains unclear, treatment may vary from person to person. Medication is used for prevention and/or immediate alleviation of symptoms and is usually the main course of treatment. Medications are usually sedative-type antianxiety medications and antidepressants.

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Q:There is no way to manage panic attacks without medication. True or False?

A:False. Steps can be taken to lessen the chance of having panic attacks. It is also possible to manage panic attacks. Recognizing symptoms of a panic attack is key. Most people who suffer from panic attacks live in constant fear of the next attack. When the first symptom is sensed, sufferers should try to take slow, deep breaths. Anxiety can also be greatly reduced through meditation and vigorous exercise. Psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and relaxation are often used to help relax the body and relieve anxiety.

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