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Someone suffering from panic disorder experiences recurrent and intense panic attacks. The symptoms of a panic attack are sudden palpitations, the feeling of choking, chest pain and vertigo. The attack often involves a sense of distorted reality, as well as a strong fear of dying or going insane. When the panic disorder has not yet been diagnosed, its symptoms can be easily confused with a heart attack.

Occasional panic attacks are common and do not mean that you have panic disorder. Up to 10-20 percent of us experience a panic attack at some point.

Panic attack is a very frightening experience and people suffering from repeated attacks may begin to feel permanently anxious. People suffering from panic disorder often begin to avoid crowded rooms, public places or situations in which they have suffered attacks before. Such behavior is called agoraphobia.

Every year, about 2 percent of Finns experience panic disorder. Women are affected twice as often as men. Panic disorder often occurs along with other anxiety disorders, depression or alcohol and drug problems.  

Treatment of panic disorder

You can reduce the risk of panic attacks yourself by ensuring adequate rest and sleep, relaxation and adequate exercise. It is important to avoid alcohol, drugs and large doses of caffeine. Web-based self-care programs for panic disorder can be helpful for many.

Panic disorder can be cured with proper treatment. People suffering from panic disorder benefit from psychotherapy and medication, or a combination of both.

The form of therapy that has the most support in research is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In psychotherapy, the objective is to learn to control the panic attacks and the avoidant behavior, that is, to stop avoiding places and situations that triggered the attacks. Psychotherapy can also be delivered as internet therapy or group therapy. It is also important that people during treatment receive psychoeducation about panic disorder, to relieve anxiety and form an opinion about the situation.

With drug treatment, adults can successfully prevent panic attacks and help those affected find ways to deal with the situation. In general, antidepressant drugs are used, which have been shown to have a good effect even in panic disorder. However, if the treatment does not last long enough, the panic attacks may unfortunately return later. The effect of drug treatment is not always as good in young people, and therefore psychotherapy is often preferred in this age group.

Prevention of panic disorder

There are many different causes of panic disorder and not all of them are known. Drug and alcohol use can contribute to the onset of panic disorder. Heredity seems to play a role in the tendency to have panic attacks. Negative childhood events and previous traumatic experiences can also increase the susceptibility to panic syndrome. Triggering factors can be major life changes. Refugees and other people with traumatic backgrounds are more likely to suffer from panic disorder.

Everyone can reduce the risk of panic attacks through exercise, smoking cessation, regular sleep habits and by avoiding too much coffee. Symptom-triggering factors, such as workplace or school bullying and other stress, should be addressed.

By teaching mental health skills in schools and universities, the risk of later anxiety disorders can be reduced.

Fact check: Kristian Wahlbeck, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry