What Is It?
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. A person with panic disorder has panic attacks, which are repeated, unexpected episodes of intense fear and anxiety along with physical symptoms linked to the body's normal response to danger.
If you are truly in danger (for example, if you are confronted by a criminal with a gun), your body readies itself for "fight or flight." Your heart rate increases; blood rushes to your arm and leg muscles, causing a trembling or tingling sensation; you may sweat and become flushed; you will become intensely fearful, aroused and very alert. In people having a panic attack, however, these changes occur when there is no danger. At the height of a panic attack, people also may have a frightening feeling that the environment around them has somehow become unreal or detached, or that they are going to die, have a heart attack, lose control or "go crazy." Some people with panic disorder have several panic attacks each day, while others go weeks or months between attacks.
Since panic attacks occur without warning - even during sleep - people who suffer from panic disorder are usually anxious that an attack may begin at any moment. They worry not only about the psychological pain and physical discomfort of the panic attack, but also that their extreme behavior during a panic episode might embarrass them or frighten others. Their constant fear and anticipation may lead to a fear of being in public places where it would be difficult or embarrassing to make a sudden exit. This fear is called agoraphobia. People who have agoraphobia may, for example, avoid attending a performance in a crowded stadium or movie theater; waiting in line at a store; traveling on a bus, train or plane; or driving on roads that have bridges or tunnels.
Although researchers do not completely understand why some people develop panic disorder, they believe that the illness involves a disturbance in brain pathways that regulate emotion, where chemicals called neurotransmitters are active. These chemicals (for example, norepinephrine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid) carry signals between brain cells. Researchers believe the following areas of the brain are involved in controlling your anxiety level: