Panic Disorder and Mental Illness
When people have attacks of anger, screaming, shaking, dizziness, rapid heart beat, they are often thought of as being “high strung,” having “high blood,” having a bad “case of the nerves,” having a “nervous attack,” having a “fit.” These cultural attitudes can be a deterrent to a person getting proper psychological diagnosis and treatment for an Anxiety Disorder.
In fact, the term “anxiety” does not quite do justice to the terrifying sensations of fear, apprehension, worry, and dread that affect people living with these disorders. These are brain disorders in which internal sensations and everyday happenings are interpreted as dire events – so threatening that individuals with these illnesses will create elaborate, debilitating patterns of avoidance to handle them.
For the sake of clarity, the Anxiety Disorders are as follows: Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Phobias.
Panic Disorder affects 1-2% of Americans and about half of the time it strikes before the age of 24. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men. Because the physical symptoms are so prominent in these attacks, many people who live with this disorder never seek any kind of psychiatric help. They may go to the emergency room because the first ten symptoms are “alarm signals” of the body which come with a sudden paralyzing sense of fear. Many think they are having a heart attack because they have palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath or smothering, feelings of choking, chest pain, dizziness, numbness, chills or hot flushes. In addition to the body symptoms, the symptoms of the senses are feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself, fear of losing control of one’s mind, fear of dying. Panic attacks usually peak within ten minutes, and then dissipate within a half an hour.
For Panic Disorder to be diagnosed, a person must experience recurrent, unexpected panic attacks followed by concern that the attacks will “strike again,” worry that these attacks imply life-threatening issues or losing one’s mind, or avoidance of situations related to the attacks.
A Panic Disorder can be disabling when the dread of the recurrence becomes so great that they become phobic – too terrified to leave their home, use an elevator, attend social events or go anywhere in public. This condition, called agoraphobia, occurs in 1/3 to ½ of the victims of Panic Disorder.
Panic Disorder can be controlled by psychotherapy, self-help, and medication. There is HOPE.