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Understanding Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is a medical condition marked by recurring episodes of panic attacks. While some people experience a panic attack only once in their lifetime and never suffer another one again, those with panic disorder suffer frequent attacks that often arise with little or no warning.
Not knowing if or when another attack will occur causes a constant, underlying sense of dread, which in turn may trigger more panic attacks. Although the exact cause of panic disorder is unknown, genetics and brain chemistry may play a large role. Panic disorder affects more women than men and usually manifests before age 25. Panic disorder often occurs alongside other types of anxiety disorders.
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The Two Main Types of Panic Disorders
The two types of panic disorders are panic disorder with agoraphobia and panic disorder without agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that makes it difficult for the sufferer to feel safe or comfortable in public places or unfamiliar environments, especially crowded areas. Contrary to popular belief, agoraphobia doesn’t cause panic attacks because the individual is afraid to go out into public; the intense fear of having an attack and not being able to escape safely or without embarrassment actually leads to the panic attack itself.
Like most psychological disorders, the exact cause of panic disorder with agoraphobia is unknown. However, with agoraphobia, a past event may be the culprit. If someone with panic disorder suffered an attack at a specific place- the supermarket, for example- and suffered embarrassment because of it, they may be so frightened of a recurrence that they avoid the store in the future. Then they start to wonder if it can happen in other places, and perhaps they should avoid those environments as well. This builds up into a situation where the sufferer doesn’t feel comfortable in any public environment. In other cases, a single, very traumatic event may trigger the instinct to stay safely confined within their own walls.
Panic disorder without agoraphobia is more common and encompasses all the other types of panic attacks. The fact that the attacks are not triggered strictly by social situations is the only major difference between the two types of panic disorders. Panic disorder without agoraphobia is a much broader type of disorder- just about anything can trigger an attack. For some, exposure to the source of a phobia can lead to panic - i.e. someone who is afraid of flying may panic at the mere thought of an impending business or family trip that involves air travel. For others, being in a situation that caused a panic attack in the past may trigger subsequent attacks. Like panic disorder with agoraphobia, they associate the situation with a past attack. However, unlike those with agoraphobia, they aren’t so overwhelmed with dread that they go out of their way to avoid the situation. Panic attacks can also occur spontaneously without any apparent cause, and those are often the most disconcerting of all. First time sufferers often seek medical attention because they believe the symptoms mimic a heart attack or other medical emergency.
Both types of panic disorders are often treated using a multi-faceted approach that may include medication, individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and exposure to panic attack triggers.
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Medline Plus: Panic Disorder, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000924.htm
Medline Plus: Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000923.htm
Mayo Clinic: Agoraphobia, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/agoraphobia/DS00894