Panic Disorders Develop Over Time

Patients with panic disorders may experience delayed and increasingly severe onset of symptoms from certain stressful life events, a study has shown.

While stress-invoking events have been known to trigger panic attacks, their impact on the severity of symptoms in panic disorder patients is less understood. Lead study author Ethan Moitra, PhD of the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, theorized that such patients' symptoms would escalate immediately after experiencing a stressful event and dissipate shortly thereafter.

His findings proved otherwise, at least in response to two particular types of stressful life events.

What Is Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is diagnosed when a person experiences repeated and short attacks of extreme fear that something horrible is about to occur. Its sudden onset is characterized by physical and emotional symptoms including shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, fear of dying or losing control, and nausea. Individuals with panic disorder with agoraphobia experience panic attacks from extreme fear and anxiety of being in public places where escape may be difficult. Many avoid crowded places and ultimately isolate themselves completely, unable to leave their homes.

About one in three people with panic disorder develops agoraphobia, with roughly 19.1 million American adults experiencing an anxiety disorder in any given year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women have a 60% greater likelihood of experiencing an anxiety disorder over their lifetime than men.

The Study Showed How Panic Disorders Worsen

Dr. Moitra and colleagues analyzed data of 418 patients diagnosed with panic disorder from the Harvard/Brown Anxiety Research Program (HARP), a long-term study of 711 adults with a current diagnosis or past history of anxiety disorders. While all the patients had panic disorder, some also suffered from agoraphobia.

In the study, researchers interviewed participants to glean information about stressful events, which were then distinguished in the following categories: school, work, love, health, crime/legal, family/friends/household, residence, death, and childbirth. Positive events, such as work promotions or raises, were not included. Patients' symptoms were examined 12 weeks before and after the events occurred.

Results showed that while the severity of symptoms did not change significantly in the 12 weeks preceding any stressful events or during the same week they occurred, symptoms did steadily worsen in the 12 weeks following two specific types of stressful life occurrences. Those two events were related to family/friend/household issues or work situations, such as experiencing serious family arguments, or being fired.

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Date of original publication:

Updated: February 02, 2017