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What is panic disorder?

 

As a teenager, Denise remembers being in her bedroom at her parents’ house, watching TV while painting her nails. It had been a quiet, uneventful Saturday afternoon, when suddenly she heard two loud knocks at her door, followed by a big thud.


“I wasn’t panicked, more annoyed,” she remembers. “I got up to check, my nails all wet and the toe separators hanging from my feet, and I opened my door.”


She found her father curled up on the ground, breathing heavily and trembling.


“It was this moment of complete shock, like ‘Did my dad just have a heart attack? Did he pass out? What is going on?’ He was wide awake, but he was drenched with sweat and he’s on the floor shaking like a leaf.


“For a daughter, seeing her dad like that in this weakened, very human state… it was really nothing short of shocking and like… the most discomfort I think I’ve ever felt.”


Denise called 911; first responders came within minutes, who calmly assessed him and took him to the hospital.


“It’s probably kind of silly, but what tipped me off that this wasn’t a ‘physical’ thing – like a heart attack, I mean – was that they didn’t turn on their lights and they weren’t rushing out of the house of whatever,” says Denise. “They were really, really kind, and so good to my dad, and they kept their voices soft and calm and soothing, like they would have been comforting someone who was in a real panic.”


Denise wasn’t wrong. Later that afternoon, she was advised her father had suffered from a panic attack. Her mother would soon share with Denise that her dad had actually been living with panic disorder for years. She never knew.


What is a panic disorder? What are panic attacks?

 

If a person has frequent and unexpected panic attacks (a feeling of intense fear which may last for a few minutes), which may be accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling or heart palpitations, as well as constant worry that another panic attack is coming, to the point that their behavior changes significantly, they may suffer from a panic disorder.


Panic attacks are scary for the people who get them. They might report feeling their heart pounding, or chest discomfort, leading them to feel as though they may be having a heart attack. They may be short of breath, sweating, numb, hot and cold, and even dizzy and nauseated. They may feel as though they’re “detached” from reality. Some say it feels as though they’re suffocating or going crazy.


For people who have had frequent panic attacks, avoiding places where they’ve had panic attacks before is common.


No one knows exactly why anyone would develop a panic disorder, but there are a few reasons a person might develop such a mental health issue. Family history of panic attacks and disorders are one; stressful or traumatic life experiences could also contribute.


There are many treatments for panic disorder – it’s not a life sentence. Many people turn to therapy or counseling, and the most successful and effective form of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. In more severe cases, medication has proven to also help, in conjunction with talk therapy.

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