About a third of people experience panic symptoms or even a full-blown Panic Attack at some point. Panic Disorder occurs when an individual experiences recurrent, unexpected Panic Attacks followed by at least 1 month of:
• Concern about future panic attacks, or
• Worry regarding the consequences of panic symptoms (e.g., having a heart attack, losing control, "going crazy"),
• A significant change in behavior as a result of panic attacks.
The concern about future panic symptoms is often called anticipatory anxiety, which is defined as anxiety caused by anticipating a future feared event or situation, in this case another Panic Attack. Some people with Panic Disorder also suffer from Agoraphobia.
Panic Disorder with or without Agoraphobia can be debilitating and may be accompanied by Depression.
People are not diagnosed with Panic Attacks because they can occur for a number of reasons. Additionally, Panic Attacks are not necessarily indicative of Panic Disorder. Please read about other anxiety disorders for a better understanding of what you have been dealing with and whether your symptoms represent Panic Disorder.
Note that Panic Disorder is not diagnosed if the symptoms are directly caused by alcohol or other drugs or are the direct result of a medical condition. It is also not diagnosed when Panic Attacks occur exclusively within the context of another psychological disorder (e.g., Social Phobia).
Treatment for Panic Disorder involves learning how to not be afraid of the physical symptoms of a Panic Attack. Although some physical sensations will always be uncomfortable (e.g., dizziness), these symptoms do not have to cause fear. Because panic symptoms are often interpreted a sign of something mentally or physically catastrophic treatment also involves learning new ways of thinking about these symptoms. Although learning relaxation is helpful in reducing anxiety in the moment, relaxation is only a small component of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and usually not sufficient to treat Panic Disorder. Learning skills of mindfulness and acceptance can also be an important component of treatment, especially in terms of preventing relapse into Panic Disorder when anxiety is experienced in the future.