The experience has been described as a feeling of slipping into a surreal state of overwhelming dread that seems uncontrollable. Panic attacks are so realistic to victims that the body sends off a host of distorted fight-or-flight responses and triggers anxiety-induced emotions. Attacks are sometimes intense and frequent enough to affect a disability known as panic disorder.
The chest pains, chills and numbness, certainty of impending doom, loss of reality that seemingly comes from nowhere and even in sleep for 10 or more minutes at a time are symptoms of panic attacks and various disorders suffered by an estimated six million Americans. The disorder frequently begins in young adulthood and is thought to be inherited.
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder listed in the DSMIV-TR Manual of Psychiatric Diagnoses that can qualify an individual for Social Security Disability benefits if that individual can no longer work. When panic attacks overstep the bounds of reason and start to interfere with a person’s quality of life, the attacks are labeled a disorder that, left untreated, can drive a victim to a fear of open spaces, which is known as agoraphobia.
For one-third of patients with panic disorders, more women than men, the only way to minimize anxiety is to disconnect and avoid otherwise normal activities, like shopping, driving or even leaving home to go to work. Wherever panic attacks happen are the places victims shun first, until the entire outside world feels like an enemy.
Panic attacks may be one time incidents that never develop into disorders, but when they do, diagnosis can be elusive with symptoms often mistaken for the separate and often accompanying conditions like depression. When treated early with behavioral therapy and medication, panic disorders are among the easiest to control. There is also recent research into the possibility that a molecular “switch” affects panic disorder, but studies into the biological reasons for panic disorder are still developing. Unfortunately, patients can often suffer years with attacks before there is a clear diagnosis.
Source: European Commission Cordis News, “Molecular switch affects panic disorder,” 4/14/11