Contrary to what many people believe, it's possible to have panic attacks without panic disorder. Panic attacks are a reaction to severe stress and anxiety. These attacks may occur anytime, anywhere, but may only happen once in a very rare while and not otherwise have any effect on your life.
If you've only had one panic attack, or you've had more than one, but they're very far apart and don’t concern you once the panic attack is over, then you may be suffering from a different anxiety disorder or no disorder at all.
But if you're suffering from the following, you may have panic disorder:
- You've had more than one panic attack in the past month.
- You fear experiencing more panic attacks.
- You change who you are because of your panic attacks.
- Your panic attacks cause you distress regularly.
- Your panic attacks are not caused by any underlying health problems.
Only a psychologist can diagnose you with panic disorder, but if you suffer from regular panic attacks or you worry about getting a panic attack often, you may have panic disorder. Not everyone even gets panic attacks after the first few. Some people simply develop such a severe fear of getting a panic attack that it affects them almost every day.
Underlying health problems are very rare, but that's why it's always a good idea to talk with a doctor. Thyroid conditions, for example, could cause panic attacks. These may still need to be treated with anxiety reduction techniques, but thyroid medications may also help.
How to Stop Your Panic Disorder
You start by looking at your specific symptoms and using them to develop a step by step treatment plan that can effectively rid you of your panic attacks forever.
Understanding Panic Disorder
Panic disorder can have a significant impact on your quality of life. It can be triggered by a stressful event but is often triggered by nothing at all. It also may create other problems, like hypersensitivity (becoming oversensitive to the way your body feels) or create health anxiety.
Panic disorder may also cause such significant stress on your body that you start to experience very unusual anxiety symptoms even when no panic attack occurs. Many people describe very unusual symptoms that don’t appear to be related to anxiety, but anxiety seems to be the only cause.
There is no denying that panic disorder is much more than just "panic attacks." It's a problem that affects a person's life every day. Panic disorder needs to be treated.
Comorbid Conditions With Panic Disorder
One of the other worries about untreated panic disorder is that it may also develop other comorbid conditions. Comorbidity occurs when you have more than one type of psychological disorder.
The most common is agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a fear of the unfamiliar or the fear of going outdoors. Those with agoraphobia may not leave their house at all, or may only go to very specific places, like the office and grocery store. Agoraphobia may occur for any or all of the following reasons:
- You may worry about having a panic attack in a place you're not familiar.
- You may worry about having a panic attack in front of others.
- You may associate specific places with panic attacks, cutting down your list of places you can go.
Panic disorder diagnoses often are described as being with or without agoraphobia, because the condition is so common in those with panic.
Panic disorder may also lead to depression. For some, living with panic disorder can cause such immense feelings of fatigue and stress that they're left emotionally drained, and over time that feeling can lead to helplessness. It is possible for people to have depression first and panic attacks second. But living with panic disorder alone for an extended period poses a risk of developing depression.
It's also possible to have panic disorder and other anxiety disorders. Often – although not always – the other anxiety disorders come first, but regular panic attacks can lead to the development of generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, and possibly some other phobias.
Finally, those that try to self-medicate for their panic disorder may develop drug dependencies.
These conditions can make it harder to treat your panic disorder, which is why it's so important to start treatment right away.
Is Panic Disorder Treatable?
Panic disorder is treatable. In fact, the right treatments can cure your panic disorder forever.
However, it's important to remember that panic attacks can be hard to treat on their own. That's because they can be triggered by absolutely nothing and may occur without warning at any moment. Similarly, the more you think about your panic disorder, the more likely you are to have a panic attack, and so trying to get over it yourself without a clear plan may not be effective.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is the best-known treatment for panic disorder. There are also medications that can be used to relieve anxiety symptoms temporarily, but these are not at all recommended for long-term use as they may lead to dependency – not just pharmaceutical dependency, but also coping dependency since they take away your own ability to cope with stress.
There is no immediate, miracle cure for panic attacks, but those that are willing to commit to the right treatments can find relief.
When I hope people overcome their panic attacks, I start them off with my 7-minute anxiety test The free test looks at each symptom to recommend a specific recovery plan.
Eaton, William W., et al. Panic and panic disorder in the United States. The American journal of psychiatry (1994).
American Psychiatric Association. Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with panic disorder. Amer Psychiatric Pub Inc, 1998.
Bouton, Mark E., Susan Mineka, and David H. Barlow. A modern learning theory perspective on the etiology of panic disorder. Psychological review 108.1 (2001): 4.
Clark, David M., et al. A comparison of cognitive therapy, applied relaxation and imipramine in the treatment of panic disorder. The British Journal of Psychiatry 164.6 (1994): 759-769.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Nov 23, 2017.