People who suffer from panic disorder are subject to sudden episodes of intense fear when there is no danger present. The attacks can be very disturbing and cause physical symptoms. During an episode, a person can feel that they are out of control, having a heart attack or even dying. Some people have only one or two panic attacks during their life and the condition does not recur, possibly due to the end of a particularly stressful situation. However, if the episodes occur with regularity, panic disorder is a likely diagnosis. There was a time when panic attacks were thought of as being due to “nerves” or stress but research has established panic disorder as a legitimate mental health disorder.


The exact cause has not been established but it is thought that certain factors are involved such as:

  • Family history or genetics
  • Extreme stress
  • A temperament susceptible to stress
  • Brain function

What is commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” response is present in people suffering from panic disorder. In normal circumstances, when a person perceives danger, heart rate and respiration increase in preparation for defense. For example, the sight and sound of a large explosion would cause a person to instinctively run away from the scene with a pounding heart. A similar reaction occurs for people with panic disorder when nothing is wrong and there is no danger.


The unpredictability of panic attacks contributes to the fear since they typically begin without warning. A person might be at work, driving, shopping or asleep when an attack strikes. Duration is usually about ten minutes, leaving the victim feeling drained. An episode may include a few or many of the following symptoms:

  • A sense of impending doom
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hyperventilation
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Faintness
  • Difficulty swallowing

Due to the intense fear of an impending attack, a person begins to avoid locations where previous attacks have occurred and often isolate themselves at home to feel safe.  Such isolation has life-changing effects on work, school, social life and family relationships. If these symptoms sound familiar, a doctor should be consulted as soon as possible. Panic attacks cannot be managed alone and may become worse if left untreated. Also, as some of the symptoms are similar to other health conditions, such as a heart attack, it’s important to see a doctor for a diagnosis and possible referral to a center for anxiety and related disorders.

In addition to what a person with a panic disorder must endure, family members and friends are also affected by the disorder. Those suffering from panic attacks may become reclusive and fearful, making it difficult for friends and family to better understand the condition. If a person is reluctant to seek treatment, family members can be supportive and encouraging in getting their loved one to see a doctor.


A visit to the family physician is the first step. The doctor can rule out any physical causes for the symptoms and will generally make a referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist or other qualified clinician. That clinician will make recommendations for treatment options including inpatient treatment for anxiety, outpatient treatment, medication and/or therapy.

What to look for in a treatment center

It’s important to find a treatment center that offers the best possible care and treatment for the patient’s specific needs. Make a list of questions, do some research online and call various centers for any additional information. A reputable center for anxiety will provide a thorough patient assessment and take note of any underlying condition or conditions which may be present. Accounting for additional underlying conditions is referred to as “dual diagnosis.”  For example, a patient with a panic disorder may also be suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or substance abuse.  All conditions must be treated concurrently in order to achieve an optimum outcome.

Individual and group therapy can also prove beneficial during the recovery process. Individual therapy comprises one-on-one discussion with a clinician in a private setting. Cognitive behavioral therapy allows patients to practice different methods of redirecting thought processes for a healthier outcome. Medication may be prescribed at the discretion of the clinician. Group therapy allows participants to share their experiences hear the stories of patients with similar conditions. It is encouraging to know one is not alone in his or her struggles and that recovery is possible.

When it comes to treatment center itinerary, therapeutic activities should be available, enabling patients to engage in fun occupations with others. Patient accommodations should be welcoming and comfortable. Is there a concierge to greet and help new arrivals? A treatment plan should be designed with the specific needs of each patient in mind.

A well rounded facility will acknowledge the importance of family members in the patient’s treatment.  They should be kept informed of progress made (with patient permission) and included in therapy if that is useful.  Look for a treatment center that provides continuing care when treatment is complete. Alumni programs support and encourage newly recovered patients with events like reunions for alumni and their families.

Brain wellness is essential for recovery and depends on cognitive ability.  Cognitive testing and brain mapping (a painless procedure) can pinpoint areas in the brain which can be improved to promote healthy change over time. Improved responses to stress are one of the benefits of cognitive therapy.

Most treatment centers accept major health insurance plans making treatment affordable.

If you would like further information, please call Anxiety Treatment Centers of California at 855-972-9459.