People with panic disorder live in fear that they will have another sudden, inexplicable panic attack: an extreme, uncontrollable sense of panic that comes on out of nowhere. Part of what is so debilitating about panic disorder is the fear of having a panic attack in a situation that would be embarrassing or where you can’t escape easily.
People with panic disorder may have some of the following reactions after a series of panic attacks:
- Avoidance. You might go out of your way to avoid where you were and what you were doing when a panic attack occurred. You might do this even if there is no pattern to your panic attacks. This can make a normal work and home life nearly impossible.
- Anticipatory anxiety. Panic disorder can involve a cycle of anxiety: a panic attack is extremely upsetting, and you become anxious about the possibility of having another one.
- Agoraphobia. This is the fear of being in places or situations where an attack may occur, or where you can’t escape. This fear might cause you to avoid public places and crowds, and may even progress to the point where you will not leave your home, or where you need a “safe person” with you to go out.
- Claustrophobia. You may fear enclosed spaces after experiencing panic attacks.
The panic attacks themselves are all-consuming while they last and can include:
- Difficulty breathing or a sensation of choking or smothering
- Pounding heart or chest pain
- Intense feeling of terror
- Dizziness or feeling faint
- Trembling or shaking
- Nausea or stomachache
- Tingling or numbness in the fingers and toes
- Chills or hot flashes
- A fear that you are losing control or are about to die
Panic disorder is treatable, often with cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressant medication, or both.
Additional stress management, such as exercise, relaxation techniques, yoga, and meditation, and avoiding caffeine, drugs, and alcohol, may also be helpful. People who experience panic attacks often feel as though something is wrong with their heart. It is a good idea to see a healthcare provider to rule out physical causes of panic attack symptoms.