Panic Disorder (PD) affects approximately 6 million American adults, and women are more then twice as likely to suffer from this condition, in comparison to men. Those with Panic Disorder experience the occurrence of "Panic Attacks" (often referred to an "Anxiety Attacks"). Although the symptoms of a Panic Attack are primarily physical in nature, they also include cognitive components, that is, specific thought patterns associated with these attacks. The primary physical symptoms of a Panic Attack would include: rapid heart rate, a feeling of suffocation, a feeling of choking, chest pain, sweating, nausea or abdominal distress, chills or hot flashes, dizziness, and a feeling of disorientation or detachment from one's body. Not all of these symptoms need to occur during a Panic Attack. Some attacks include only a handful of these symptoms, and a person may experience different physical sensations from one attack to another. In addition to these physical sensations, Panic Disorder also involves thoughts related to the attacks themselves, such as persistent concerns (for at least 1 month or longer) about having additional attacks in the near future, and thoughts about the possible consequences of the attacks themselves (e.g., experiencing heart failure, loosing all control and "going crazy"). A diagnosis of Panic Disorder is made only after the physical symptoms outlined above are NOT due to any type of medical condition, substance abuse, or better accounted for by another type of anxiety disorder such as a specific phobia or social anxiety, for example. The key characteristic of this anxiety disorder is the sudden, recurrent, and often unexpected nature of the attacks themselves, which typically tend to peak in severity within an 8-10 minute time period. These anxiety attacks represent the basic emotion of terror, or "false alarms" firing off at times when there is no true emergency at hand.
In addition to the physical and cognitive symptoms of Panic Disorder discussed above, about 1 in 3 people with this anxiety disorder develop a condition known as Panic Disorder with Agoraphobic Avoidance (PDA), which primarily involves behavioral response patterns related to the avoidance of situations or places where they previously experienced a Panic Attack. Environments typically avoided by those who suffer from PDA (Agoraphobia) would include shopping malls, movie theators, large sports arenas, and various forms of public transportation such as subways, flights, etc. That is, nealy any environment in which quick and easy escape routes would be difficult should the experience of a Panic Attack occur. It is not so much the particular situation itself that is feared (e.g., being in an airplane), it is the fear of having a Panic Attack while in a situation in which a fast exit to safety is extremely difficult to obtain. People with Panic Disorder with Agoraphobic Avoidance (PDA) find their world shrinking quickly with respect to places in which they feel comfortable visiting. Or, when they do venture out it is usually not without the presense of a "safe person" or some other type of "safefty cue" such as a pet, medication, the presence of a nearby hospital, etc.
The Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry, in Incline Village, NV. (Lake Tahoe), provides a short-term Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) program designed to help the person with a diagnosis of Panic Disorder to learn specific "evidence-based" skills directed at (1) changing their thought patterns from fear based interpretations of sudden changes in physical sensations, to more realistic appraisals concerning these bodily changes, followed by (2) learning through Exposure & Response Prevention strategies, in a step-by-step manner, for effectively engaging in situations which were previously dealt with by using avoidance strategies. For more information on Panic Disorder, please visit the Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation and the Anxiety & Depression Assocation of America web sites.