The term ‘panic disorder’ is hotly debated. Conventially, it means someone who experiences a number of panic attacks which in turn, limit the extent to which that person lives her/his life. Panic attacks, as the words imply, are episodes of feeling high levels of fear, even terror, in situations where feeling so panic-stricken and afraid is totally inappropriate. While it’s life-saving to panic when there is real and present danger, many people who experience what we call panic attacks, feel intense fear in places like a shopping Mall, a movie theatre and while they’re out driving.

Panic attacks come out of the blue

Most people who experience panic attacks experience them out of the blue. The person is likely to feel any and all of the physical symptoms of intense fear including:

  • shortness of breath
  • racing heart beat
  • sweaty palms
  • dry throat
  • feeling sick in the stomach
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling lightheaded and faint

When you feel fear the very powerful hormone adrenaline is pumped into your system. That adrenaline is part of what is called the Flight/Fight syndrome. Under normal circumstances, adrenaline performs the very important physiological function of preparing you to run away, escape quickly from danger, or to stay and fight your way out of it. The most upsetting thing about a panic attack is that the person feeling those intense feelings knows full well that there is no sabre toothed tiger on the attack. There is nothing to fear – except the feelings of being out of control and of being afraid.

When someone experiences those feelings of inappropriate panic at, for example, the local Mall for the first time s/he may be able to write it off as something strange that happened on that day. When the same feelings of panic occur on several visits to the Mall, the person is very likely to avoid going to the Mall. That leads some medical practitioners and counsellors to use the label ‘panic disorder’ to describe that avoiding behaviour.

Considering the whole person and finding solutions to upsetting panic rather than in using labels that make people feel like they have an illness is the appropriate way forward. Experiencing panic attacks is not pleasant. It’s not a disorder. Panic attacks and even phobic responses are emotional responses that needed to be managed and rewritten. Not behaviours that need to be labelled as disorders.