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Do I have Panic Disorder? How to tell, and what to expect from treatment

  • anonymous Asks ...

    How many panic attacks do you have to have before you are considered to have panic disorder? Is there anything more to it than just this?

  • Jennifer Liles Says ...
    Jennifer Liles

    Unfortunately, there is no specific number of panic attacks you can point to and say “Aha! I have panic disorder” or “Thank goodness, I don't have panic disorder”. Recurrent simply means “more than one”. 

    In order to be diagnosed as having panic disorder, several things must be going on with a person. They have to have “more than one” panic attack, these panic attacks must be “unexpected” (in other words, you can't identify what caused the panic attack), and the panic attacks must be followed by being worried that they will happen again, that the person feeling them is “going crazy”, or some other serious worry about the panic attacks. The person experiencing the attacks must also change his or her behavior to try to prevent or avoid the attacks to be diagnosed with the disorder. 

    Finally, the panic attacks must 'stand on their own' and not be the effects of a substance or another already diagnosed mental illness such as PTSD or a phobia. 

    Often, what is more important than the diagnosis of panic disorder is the distress someone is feeling about the attacks, whether or not they meet the diagnosis of panic disorder. Panic attacks feel very physical, not mental, and the symptoms often closely resemble the symptoms of a heart attack (though panic attacks do not damage the heart in any way scientists have yet uncovered). 

    If you are having panic attacks, whether frequent or every once in awhile, and they are affecting your life, it would be a good idea to seek help from a mental health professional. 

    A psychiatrist might give you a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, and a therapist might work with you on coping skills so that you can reduce the frequency of your panic attacks and the impact they have on your life.

    These interventions might include things like:

    • exploring issues in your past that might be contributing to panic attacks
    • teaching mindfulness techniques that help you regain control over your thoughts and physical processes
    • teaching coping skills to help you deal with everyday and more difficult stresses in your life, and
    • support and encouragement that you're not "going crazy" and that you have what you need to deal with these issues. 
    • Assistance and coaching practicing the coping skills you have learned.
    Sometimes people who have panic disorder have agoraphobia with it. Agoraphobia is a fear of leaving your home or homelike spaces that make you feel safe. This can be so severe that trips to trusted friends or the grocery store can bring on severe anxiety and induce panic attacks.    People who have panic attacks, with or without a diagnosis of panic disorder, and with or without agoraphobia, often report that friends and family think they're exaggerating or making up their symptoms.   It is important to understand that panic attacks are very real and can cause significant problems for the person undergoing them, and can cause problems in their relationships with people around them.   Thank you very much for your question. Please feel free to ask for clarification if you need more information.

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