Panic disorder refers to the experience of recurrent and disabling panic attacks which last up to a few minutes and are accompanied by physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, shaking, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Fear of losing control, of going ‘crazy’, or of dying are also common during a panic attack. People with panic disorder often worry about experiencing further panic attacks and, as a result, may start avoiding activities or certain situations to minimise or avoid the possibility of a future attack. In Australia, it is estimated that 5 per cent of the population will experience panic disorder in their lifetime, with women being more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder than men. Symptoms of panic disorder can occur at any age, with the typical age of onset ranging from late adolescence to early adulthood.
Panic attacks are the main symptom of panic disorder. A panic attack is a sudden surge of intense fear or discomfort which reaches a peak within several minutes and is accompanied by at least four of the following:
Two types of panic attack have been identified: expected and unexpected. Expected panic attacks occur following a particular cue or trigger, for example, for some people being in a large crowd or in a lift might frequently trigger a panic attack. Unexpected panic attacks, on the other hand, do not have an identifiable cue or trigger and can occur at any time, even if the person is in a calm state or asleep.
For a diagnosis of panic disorder, a person must experience at least one unexpected panic attack followed by one month or more of:
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