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Panic Disorder in Women   

Malibu Vista provides expert care for women struggling with panic disorder and other anxiety disorders. Panic disorder is a form of anxiety disorder characterized by the repeated, unexpected occurrence of panic attacks. These attacks produce uncontrollable fear and other symptoms in situations that would not normally produce this type of reaction.

The Basics: Symptoms of Panic Disorder

In addition to fear of things such as loss of control, loss of sanity and death, panic attacks produce symptoms that can include:

  • Involuntary trembling
  • Facial numbness
  • Leg or arm numbness
  • Chest pains
  • Nausea
  • Chills
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sweating
  • An unexplained choking or smothering sensation

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These symptoms may appear as a non-specific response to high levels of stress or anxiety, as a specific phobic response to certain situations or things, or for no clear reason at all. Even when the underlying causes of an attack are known, the attacks themselves typically appear at unpredictable times. In many cases, a panic attack will last for just a few minutes; however, some people develop panic-related symptoms that last for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes up to an hour or more.

The causes of panic disorder aren’t well-understood, the National Institute of Mental Health explains. However, researchers do know that fear- and anxiety-related responses in human beings come from several different parts of the brain, and people with panic disorder may have complex problems that affect one or more of these areas. The disorder may also stem, in part, from increased anxiety in people who experience isolated panic attacks and subsequently fear a recurrence of attack symptoms.

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Increased Rate and Severity in Women

Compared to men, women have a much greater chance of experiencing panic attacks and developing panic disorder. Studies show that women develop panic disorder roughly 2.5 times as frequently as men. For both men and women, age is a factor. For example, about 2.5 percent of all girls and women between the ages of 15 and 24 have some form of panic disorder, while about 1.3 percent of boys and men in this age group have the disorder. Roughly 2 percent of women between the ages of 35 and 44 develop some form of panic disorder, while roughly 0.6 percent of men in this age group develop panic-related symptoms.

When panic attacks and/or panic disorder occur, women also have more severe symptoms than men. In addition, women with panic disorder experience recurring panic attacks much more frequently than men with the disorder. Both men and women report a rapid heartbeat as the most common symptom of panic disorder. However, compared to men, women have higher rates of other symptoms, including choking or smothering sensations, lightheadedness and shortness of breath. Women without panic disorder who experience isolated panic attacks also develop these additional symptoms at higher rates than men who experience isolated panic attacks.

Age-Related Risks in Women

While women in their 30s and 40s have somewhat lower risks for panic disorder than women in their late teens and 20s, women over 50 have a significantly increased risk for the disorder, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Women in this age group have an especially high risk if they experience five or more highly stressful life events in any given 12-month period.

Other factors that increase the risk of panic disorder in women over 50 include health problems such as thyroid disorders, asthma, emphysema, heart disease and a form of headache called migraine with aura. In addition, panic-related problems in this age group are heavily associated with depression and/or the presence of a diagnosed depressive illness such as major depression, dysthymia or mild depression.

Other Considerations

Apart from all other factors, women over the age of 50 experience roughly a 300 percent increase in their risk for panic disorder if they have annual incomes of $20,000 or less. In some cases, doctors mistake the symptoms of panic disorder in older women for other mental or physical health problems. For this reason, the overall rate of panic disorder in women over 50 is probably higher than reported. According to researchers at the UCLA Women’s Center, women’s heightened risks for panic disorder probably stem, at least in part, from women’s roles in society, which often include primary responsibility for raising children and general family cohesion.

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