Panic disorder is the term used to describe when panic attacks are recurrent and disabling. Panic disorder can be characterised by:
- The presence of recurring and unexpected panic attacks.
- Worrying for at least a month after having a panic attack that you will have another one.
- Worrying about the implications or consequences of a panic attack (such as thinking that the panic attack is a sign of an undiagnosed medical problem). For example, some people have repeated medical tests due to these worries and, despite reassurance, still have fears of being unwell.
- Significant changes in behaviour that relate to the panic attacks (such as avoiding activities like exercise because it increases the heart rate).
During a panic attack, an individual is suddenly overwhelmed by the physical sensations described above. Panic attacks reach a peak within about 10 minutes and usually last for up to half an hour, leaving the person feeling tired or exhausted. They can occur several times a day or may happen only once every few years. They can even occur while people are asleep, waking them up during the attack. Many people experience a panic attack once or twice in their lives; this is common and is not panic disorder.
What causes a panic attack?
There is no one cause for panic disorder, but rather, a number of factors, including:
- Family history – People with panic disorder tend to have a family history of anxiety disorders or depressive illness and some studies suggest a genetic component.
- Biological factors – Some medical conditions (cardiac arrhythmias, hyperthyroidism, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and irritable bowel syndrome) are associated with panic disorder.
- Negative experiences – Extremely stressful life experiences such as childhood sexual abuse, redundancy or bereavement, have been linked to panic attacks as well as periods of ongoing, unrelenting stress.