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Panic/Panic Disorders

An acute feeling of intense fear, accentuated by increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, and mild convulsions.

Feelings of fear and panic are common to all species, and humans are certainly no exception. Psychologically speaking, however, panic can be an obtrusive, life-altering phenomena for many people who suffer panic attacks. Such attacks occur commonly in people suffering from various phobias. People suffering from agoraphobia, for instance, can expect to suffer panic attacks when out in public. While panic attacks are generally short-lived, their recurrence and the severity of the physical symptoms that accompany them can lead people to fear them so intensely that they develop a more severe condition known as anxiety disorder.

Panic attacks usually originate as realistic responses to fearful or stressful experiences, usually in childhood. In more mature persons, however, memories of fearful events are put in perspective, and people generally do not feel the same fear they felt as a child when confronting a similar situation as an adult. Often, however, certain people will be susceptible to a variety of subconscious triggers. For instance, a person may experience intense fear every time he or she goes to the mall, not because of the mall, per se, but perhaps because they once had a very fearful experience, like being lost from a parent, in a mall. Panic attacks can also be caused by internal reactions. For example, increased heart rate can remind a person of an early panic experience, and every time his or her heart rate increases, the person experiences another panic attack.

Psychiatrists have documented the physical manifestations of panic, and are fairly certain that there is a genetic component to panic attacks. Neurologically, recent psychiatric research has identified a brain circuit called the flight/fight system, or FFS. This neurologic area, when stimulated in animals, produces features of tremendous fear and panic. Research in this area is still very new, and with each finding there are controversies and conflicting views. Brain imaging technology should help psychiatrists better understand the neurology of panic attacks, but they are still largely a mystery.

Further Reading

Chase, Marilyn. "Psychiatry Finds Answers to Mystery of Panic Attacks." Wall Street Journal (12 June 1995): B1.

Segal, Mariah. "Panic Disorder: The Heart That Goes Thump in the Night—and Day." FDA Consumer (April 1992): 22.

Seymour, Lesley Jane. "Fear of Almost Everything." Mademoiselle (September 1993): 252.

"What Triggers Panic Attacks?" USA. Today Magazine (October 1992): 2.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaDiseases, Disorders & Mental Conditions