Imagine you’re in an airplane that suddenly starts plunging toward the ground. Your heart races. You tremble uncontrollably. You’re short of breath. The anxiety you feel is so overpowering that you’re certain you’re going to die.
Now, imagine feeling the same wave of panic while grocery shopping, driving to work, or having lunch with a friend. It’s unexplainable, yet it happens to more than 3 million Americans who suffer from panic disorder, a condition that until about 25 years ago was undefined and widely misdiagnosed.
Panic disorder develops without warning, usually during late adolescence or early adulthood. The cause is unknown, although it appears to run in families. Often it’s set off by a traumatic event, such as abuse or a serious illness. The condition is more than twice as common in women as in men.
Victims of panic disorder experience repeated episodes of sudden, traumatic, morbid fears. The symptoms are so intense that many victims, convinced that they’re having a heart attack, rush to the emergency room only to be told they’re “healthy.”
In fact, panic disorder has been misdiagnosed as everything from thyroid disease to asthma. If left untreated, panic disorder can spark agoraphobia, in which the victim becomes so afraid of having a panic attack in public that she’s unable to leave home.
Although there’s no cure, most people with panic disorder can be treated successfully with medication and behavioral therapy. Once diagnosed, most patients are immediately given a prescription for an antidepressant and/or anti-anxiety drug. The therapy is also important in helping patients reduce—and eventually eliminate—panic episodes.
Those who suffer from panic disorder benefit not only from individual therapy, which is tailored to their specific fears, but also from group therapy. Group therapy provides patients with a place to share ideas, set goals and find support. Most importantly, it provides them with reassurance that they’re not going crazy.