The main symptom of panic disorder is repeated and persistent panic attacks. These panic attacks can be triggered by generalized anxiety disorder, specific situations which induce panic in the individual, or without any recognizable trigger at all. When a doctor is diagnosing panic disorder, they’re looking for the occurrence of panic attacks.
A panic attack is a sudden and overwhelming feeling of terror, fear, danger, or dread. The symptoms of panic attacks include any or all of the following:
- Shortness of breath or a feeling of suffocation
- Heart palpitations or racing heartbeat
- Racing thoughts
- A sense of “going crazy”
- A feeling of unreality
- The thought that you might be having a heart attack
- An overwhelming urge to flee or run away
Panic attacks can last for anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours. If a panic attack is an isolated incidence, it might not be a sign of panic disorder. Panic disorder is diagnosed when a person experiences repeated panic attacks for an extended period of time, whether it be weeks, months, or even years.
Because panic disorder can be related to certain neurological, cardiac, pulmonary or gastrointestinal disorders, a doctor will first want to perform a physical examination and investigate your family history to find out if you’re suffering from some form of physical or medical condition that could be causing your panic attacks. If you’ve got a family history of panic disorder or some other form of anxiety disorder, you’re more likely to be suffering from the same disorder, and this information will help the doctor determine if what you’re experiencing is really panic disorder.
Once the doctor has ruled out any possible health conditions, they will want to know what specific situations might be triggering your panic attacks. Some panic disorders are triggered only in certain situations, such as while driving or riding an elevator, and this will determine whether or not you have panic disorder related to a specific phobia. He or she will also want to know if you’ve been diagnosed with some other form of anxiety disorder, mood disorder, or depression, as these are risk factors that increase the likelihood of panic disorder.
It is important to be completely honest with your healthcare provider when seeking help for panic disorder. Drug and alcohol abuse can exacerbate or create symptoms of panic disorder, especially if you’re using stimulant drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine. If you have a problem with drug and alcohol abuse, there are options available for your recovery. In cases where panic disorder is tied to drug and alcohol abuse, it is important to find recovery from substance abuse in order for treatment to work effectively.
Two out of three people who experience panic disorder also suffer from some other form of psychiatric disorder. Certain medications used to treat mental health issues, such as drugs used to treat ADHD, have a stimulating effect that can trigger panic attacks and panic disorder. Again, make sure to share as many details about your lifestyle, medical conditions, former or current occurrences of psychiatric disorder, and family history with your doctor so that you can receive proper diagnosis. Only with proper diagnosis will your healthcare provider be able to provide the most effective treatment for your panic disorder.