Adult Panic Anxiety Syndrome

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is adult panic anxiety syndrome?

Adult panic anxiety syndrome is a psychiatric disorder characterized by recurring episodes of debilitating fear and anxiety known as panic attacks. These can occur without warning and in the absence of any observable threat. Panic attacks can be brief or long-lasting and are often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as chest pain, dizziness, heightened awareness, nausea, racing heart, shortness of breath, and sweating. People who have panic anxiety syndrome may seek medical care because they are worried they are having a heart attack.

Adult panic anxiety syndrome can interfere with a person’s ability to function at work and in social situations. Symptoms can progress to the point that the individual may be unable to leave the home. Depression is a potential complication of adult panic anxiety syndrome. Adult panic anxiety disorders can have symptoms similar to substance abuse and can be complicated by substance abuse.

Although not curable, adult panic anxiety syndrome is treatable. Treatment typically includes a combination of psychotherapy and medications, such as antidepressants or antianxiety medications. Self-care measures, such as avoiding stimulants, eating meals at regular intervals, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep, can also be helpful.

Adult panic anxiety syndrome is more common in women than in men and typically appears in adolescence or early adulthood. The cause is not known, but it can run in families.

Panic anxiety syndrome often occurs with other psychiatric disorders. One third to one-half of people with panic disorders also have major depression. Over 60 percent of these people will have had one or more episodes of major depression in their life. Other anxiety disorders, including social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, also occur often with panic disorder.

Symptoms of adult panic anxiety syndrome can mimic those of diseases of the cardiovascular, respiratory, and other body systems, but these conditions can also be present in someone who has adult panic anxiety syndrome. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as being a danger to oneself or others, chest pain or pressure, confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment, difficulty breathing, dizziness or lightheadedness, profuse sweating, rapid heart rate (tachycardia), seizures, severe anxiety, severe nausea, severe pain, sudden change in vision, or weak pulse.

Adult panic anxiety syndrome can be a disabling condition. Seek prompt medical care if your anxiety or panic attacks are interfering with your ability to work, with your relationships, or with your self-confidence.

What are the symptoms of adult panic anxiety syndrome?

Symptoms of adult panic anxiety syndrome can mimic a variety of medical conditions and substance abuse. People in the midst of a panic attack may be concerned they are having a heart attack, losing their mind, or even that they are going to die.

Common ongoing symptoms of adult panic anxiety syndrome

You may experience adult panic anxiety syndrome symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times any of these symptoms can be severe:

  • Anxiety

  • Depressed mood

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Fear or anxiety about being alone

  • Fear or anxiety about being far from help

  • Fear or anxiety about being trapped, such as when using public transit or being in a crowd

  • Fear or anxiety about having a panic attack

  • Fear or anxiety about leaving your home

  • Fear or anxiety about situations or locations that might trigger a panic attack

  • Irritability and mood changes

  • Restlessness

Common symptoms during a panic attack

A variety of symptoms can occur during a panic attack including:

  • Chest pain

  • Diarrhea

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

  • Fear of going insane, losing control, or dying

  • Headache

  • Muscle tension

  • Nausea with or without vomiting

  • Numbness or tingling in arms, legs, hands or face

  • Sense of disconnectedness or unreality

  • Sense of dread or impending doom

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Sweating

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, adult panic anxiety syndrome can lead to life-threatening depression and can have the same symptoms as life-threatening heart, lung or neurologic disorders. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

What causes adult panic anxiety syndrome?

The exact cause of adult panic anxiety syndrome is not known. It seems to run in some families, although some people who have it do not have a family history of the condition. It may be related to structural changes in the brain or due to biochemical changes involving the neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), norepinephrine, and serotonin. Early childhood stress may also be a contributing factor.

What are the risk factors for adult panic anxiety syndrome?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing adult panic anxiety syndrome. Not all people with risk factors will get adult panic anxiety syndrome. Risk factors for adult panic anxiety syndrome include:

  • Early childhood stress
  • Family history of adult panic anxiety syndrome
  • Female gender

How is adult panic anxiety syndrome treated?

Although adult panic anxiety syndrome is not curable, many people are able to find relief of their symptoms with treatment. Typically, treatment involves a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medications, such as antidepressants.

Common medications used in adult panic anxiety syndrome treatment

Antidepressants are often used to treat adult panic anxiety syndrome. Other medications may be used if antidepressants do not help, or in severe cases. Medications used to treat adult panic anxiety syndrome include:

  • Benzodiazepines (antianxiety medications), such as alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and lorazepam (Ativan)

  • Beta-blockers such as propranolol (Inderal) to relieve symptoms

  • Gabapentin (Neurontin), an anticonvulsant

  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) antidepressants, such as isocarboxazid (Marplan), phenelzine (Nardil), and tranylcypromine (Parnate)

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, such as escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), and sertraline (Zoloft)

  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) antidepressants, such as desvenlafaxine (Pristiq), duloxetine (Cymbalta), or venlafaxine (Effexor)

  • Tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline (Elavil), doxepin (Sinequan), and imipramine (Tofranil)

What you can do to improve your adult panic anxiety syndrome

In addition to seeking and receiving treatment, you may be able to limit panic attacks by:

  • Avoiding alcohol or illicit drug use

  • Avoiding caffeine or other stimulants

  • Eating on a regular schedule

  • Exercising regularly

  • Getting enough sleep

What are the potential complications of adult panic anxiety syndrome?

Complications of untreated or poorly controlled adult panic anxiety syndrome can be serious. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of adult panic anxiety syndrome include:

  • Agoraphobia (fear of being somewhere without means of escape or far from help)

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Depression

  • Difficulties at work, in social environments, and with relationships

  • Illicit drug use

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 24
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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