Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America. More than 19 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, which include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. Because of widespread lack of understanding and the stigma associated with these disorders, many people with anxiety disorders are not diagnosed and are not receiving treatments that have been proven effective through research.
Most people experience feelings of anxiety before an important event such as a big exam, business presentation, or first date. Anxiety disorders, however, are illnesses that fill people's lives with overwhelming anxiety and fear that are chronic, unremitting, and can grow progressively worse. Tormented by panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, or countless frightening physical symptoms, some people with anxiety disorders even become housebound.
Panic attacks and panic disorder are actually two separate things. Up to 10 percent of healthy people experience one isolated panic attack per year. Panic attacks also commonly occur to individuals suffering from other anxiety disorders.
A panic attack consists of a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort that is associated to several physical and cognitive symptoms. A panic attack can be an experience of increased heart rate and feelings of being sweaty, weak, faint, or dizzy. The hands may tingle or feel numb and be accompanied by flushed or chilled feelings. Panic attacks can cause nausea, chest pain or smothering sensations, a sense of unreality, or fear of impending doom or loss of control. They can genuinely make a person feel as if they are having a heart attack or losing their mind, or on the verge of death. Attacks generally provoke a strong urge to escape or flee the place where the attack begins and, when associated with chest pain or shortness of breath, frequently results in seeking aid from some type of urgent care facility.
Attacks have a rapid onset, reaching maximum intensity within 10 to 15 minutes. But the attacks rarely last more than 30 minutes. They can occur at any time including during sleep and in some cases can be associated with specific situations or factors. Specific situations or factors are what can lead a person to develop panic disorder.
Panic disorder is diagnosed when a person has experienced at least two unexpected panic attacks and develops persistent concern or worry about having further attacks or changes his or her behavior to avoid or minimize such attacks. A person suffering from panic disorder will slowly restrict his environment to try to protect himself from having future panic attacks. For example, a person who has a panic attack while driving may either avoid driving on that street again or stop driving his car completely. About one-third of people who suffer panic disorder actually develop agoraphobia. This phobia causes people to be afraid of open spaces and/or public places. The individual becomes terrified to leave his home.
Panic disorder affects twice as many women as men. The age of onset is most common between late adolescence and mid-adult life, with onset relatively uncommon past age 50. Children who suffer anxiety syndromes, such as separation anxiety, tend to develop into panic disorder if not treated. The earlier the onset of this disorder, the higher the risk of social impairment and chronic attacks. Panic disorder has been shown to have a familial connection.
Fortunately, panic disorder is one of the most treatable anxiety disorders. The illness can be controlled with medication and focused psychotherapy.
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