PTSD and panic disorder commonly co-occur. This may not be surprising given that people who have experienced a traumatic event or have PTSD are at a heightened risk to develop a number of other psychiatric disorders, such as depression, substance use disorders, or other anxiety disorders. One anxiety disorder that is commonly found among people with a history of traumatic exposure or PTSD is panic disorder.
What is Panic Disorder?
To have a diagnosis of panic disorder, you need to meet the following criteria as described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition(DSM-IV).
First, you need to have experienced a panic attack. Most people know whether or not they have experienced a panic attack. It can be an incredibly frightening experience. The DSM-IV describes a panic attack as the experience of intense fear or discomfort where four or more of the following things are felt:
- pounding heart or increased heart rate
- trembling or shaking
- feeling as though you are being smothered or having difficulties breathing
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal pains and/or discomfort
- feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
- feeling as though things around you are unreal or feeling detached from yourself
- feeling as though you are going to lose control or go crazy
- fear of dying
- numbness or tingling in extremities
- chills or hot flashes
In addition, to have a diagnosis of panic disorder, you must have experienced recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. These are panic attacks that just pop up “out of the blue.” For example, a person may be in their car and all of a sudden they experience a sudden rush of fear and terror (a panic attack).
At least one of the attacks must also be followed by one month or more of one or more of the following experiences:
- Concern about having additional panic attacks
- Worry about the consequences or implications of a panic attack. For example, a person may think to themselves during a panic attack that they are having a heart attack and are going to die.
- A change in behavior because of the attacks. For example, a person may avoid certain places where a panic attack has occurred.
Finally, it is important to mention that someone can experience panic attacks and not have panic disorder. Panic attacks are actually quite common. In fact, as many as 12% of people may experience a panic attack at some point in their lifetime.
Trauma, PTSD, and Panic Disorder
Approximately 5% of people will develop panic disorder at some point in their lifetime. However, these rates may be higher among people who have experienced a traumatic event. A large number of people who have experienced a traumatic event report that they had a panic attack following the event. In addition, approximately 30% of people who have experienced a traumatic event also report experiencing unexpected panic attacks.
In particular, one study found high rates of childhood sexual abuse (41%) and physical abuse (59%) among women with panic disorder.
Another study found high rates of sexual molestation (24% for women and 5% for men) and physical abuse as a child (around 14% for both men and women) among people with panic disorder. Women with panic disorder have also been found to report high rates of rape (23%).
Besides simply traumatic exposure, panic disorder also commonly co-occurs with PTSD. Specifically, around 7% of men and 13% of women with PTSD also have panic disorder.
Fortunately, there are effective treatments available for both panic disorder and PTSD. Our guide to panic disorder provides a wealth of information on treatment options for people with panic disorder, as well as a number of helpful tips on how to cope with panic attacks.
In addition, there are a number of options available for people seeking treatment for PTSD. Some of the symptoms of PTSD may place a person at risk for panic attacks, especially the hyperarousal symptoms. In addition, the physical health problems and unhealthy behaviors (for example, smoking and substance use) that often associated with PTSD may increase the likelihood that panic attacks are experienced. By treating a person’s PTSD, then, the risk for the experience of panic attacks may be lessened.