Panic Disorder is characterised by unexpected and repeated panic attacks, defined as episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness or abdominal distress. Many people with panic disorder develop intense anxiety between episodes. In fact, a key feature of panic disorder is the development of a general fear of the next panic attack occurring. This is often referred to as fear of fear.
There are several factors thought to contribute to the development of panic disorder. Heredity and other biological factors have been found to predict the onset of the disorder. There may be a genetic predisposition to panic disorders; some sufferers report that a family member has or had a panic disorder or some other emotional disorder such as depression. Studies with twins have confirmed the possibility of ‘genetic inheritance’ of the disorder.
Stressful life events and thinking in a way that exaggerates them and the relatively normal bodily reactions they invoke are also believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. For example, catastrophic misinterpretations of physical symptoms are thought to lead to increase those physical symptoms and this can then continue to escalate into panic.
Avoidance, or agoraphobia in its extreme form, is thought to maintain panic disorder. The more a person avoids a feared situation, the more anxiety they feel towards that situation and the harder it becomes to confront it.