Panic disorder is a common condition in which a person has episodes of intense fear or anxiety that occur suddenly (often without warning). These episodes–called panic attacks–can last from minutes to hours. They may occur only once in a while, or they may occur quite frequently. The cause, or “trigger,” for these attacks may not be obvious.
Panic attacks are associated with physical symptoms that include the following:
Feeling that your heart is pounding or racing
Shortness of breath
Feeling that you are choking
Tingling or numb feeling in your hands
Chills or hot flashes
A person may also have an extreme fear of losing control, going crazy or dying during a panic attack. It is very rare for a person to have all of these symptoms at once. However, the presence of at least 4 symptoms strongly suggests that a person has panic disorder.
Many of the symptoms that occur during a panic attack are the same as the symptoms of diseases of the heart, lungs, intestines or nervous system. The similarities between panic disorder and other diseases may add to the person’s fear and anxiety during and after a panic attack.
Just the fear of having a panic attack is often enough to trigger the symptoms. This is the basis for a condition called agoraphobia. A person who has agoraphobia finds it difficult to leave home (or another safe area) because he or she is afraid of having a panic attack in public or not having an easy way to escape if the symptoms start.