Imagine walking down the street on a calm and sunny day. Suddenly, your heart rate goes up, your chest hurts, you feel dizzy and weak, and you tremble all over. In short, for no reason, you react as if you were in a life-threatening situation.
These symptoms describe panic disorder, which has been defined as a “condition in which individuals suffer repeated and unprovoked panic attacks - episodes of intense fear accompanied by distressing physical and psychological symptoms.” It affects between 3 million and 6 million people at some time in their lives.
Some people who suffer from panic disorder also have agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia fear being in public places from which they think it will be difficult to escape if a panic attack occurs. Some also fear being alone, although severe agoraphobia, if left untreated, can make a person so afraid of going outside that they become housebound.
Often people who suffer from a panic attack think they have had a heart attack because the two have similar symptoms. However, if they go to an emergency room, a doctor will often find nothing wrong.
Since panic disorder is often mistaken for other illnesses, it is difficult to diagnose. Once it is, however, the successful treatment rate can be as high as 90 percent. Treatment includes drugs such as Prozac and exposure to feared situations while teaching the patient how to cope.
According to a study conducted by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, many people have misperceptions about panic disorders. Jerilyn Ross, president of the ADAA, has said, “Many Americans, including those most at risk for the illness, do not realize that panic disorder is a real and serious medical illness seemingly linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain. While 90 percent of Americans say that someone who has a panic attack out of the blue should go to a health professional and 66 percent say that panic disorder is a serious illness, more than half still insist that panic disorder is just an overreaction to day-to-day problems.”
Sixty percent of men believe panic disorder is caused by overreaction to common problems and 35 percent think it is caused by incapability to handle stress, compared to 52 percent and 29 percent of women, respectively. The poll, conducted in April, is accurate to plus or minus 3.5 percent.
Ross, who has been working with anxiety disorders for 18 years, was a consultant on the script for the movie “Copycat,” which is in theaters now. Sigourney Weaver stars as a psychologist whose testimony puts a serial killer behind bars. Then Weaver becomes terrified of everything, even though her attacker is safely in prison.
Ross says one of the problems she has with the movie is how people are portrayed. She says the characters are “more hysterical and freaky than people with agoraphobia.”
Another problem, Ross says, is that the movie is actually about posttraumatic stress disorder, not agoraphobia. The main character witnessed a traumatic event, which brings on episodes in which she hyperventilates until she passes out. Ross says these episodes are clearly caused by the event she witnessed, and that people who suffer from panic disorder do not pass out. When people who suffer from agoraphobia have an attack and hyperventilate, their blood pressure rises. In order for them to pass out, Ross says, their blood pressure would have to lower.
In fact, Ross says, part of the treatment for panic disorder patients is to induce hyperventilation to show them they will not pass out, because passing out is one of their fears.
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