A Brief History of Panic Disorder

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A Brief History of Panic Disorder

Recognition of panic disorder has come a long way since the days of Plato. While its causes and effects are still open to debate, understanding its history and the motivation of people who first observed and described it could inform contemporary diagnosis and treatment options.

What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder known for its unexpected and repeated instances of intense fear paired with physical symptoms that could include abdominal distress, chest pain, dizziness, heart palpitations, or shortness of breath. According to the United States National Institutes of Health, it affects nearly 5% of all U.S. adults in their lifetime

Know The Symptoms

Symptoms may include any of the following:

  • A sensation of imminent doom or danger
  • Fear of losing control or death
  • Rapid, beating heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Tightness in the throat or shortness of breath 
  • Chills, hot flashes, or nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling faint
  • Numbness or tingling feelings throughout your body
  • Feeling detached from reality

Is Panic Disorder Contagious?

The symptoms and emotions of panic disorder can be transmitted from person to person, but the condition isn’t contagious like a virus. According to Dr. Jud Brewer, Ph.D. of Harvard, fear helps people survive, but when blended with uncertainty, it can lead to anxiety. A phenomenon called social contagion – “defined as the spread of affect from one person to another” – can turn into something even more worrisome: panic. Brewer equates this to arriving at a party and unexpectedly feeling unsociable when you hadn’t only moments before. In this case, fear and anxiety can spread easily from one person to the next.

Key Milestones in The History of Panic Disorder

Panic disorder received its own diagnostic category in the 1980 publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition. Prior to that, there were disparate attempts to understand it and its causes, with little agreement on specifics. Before that, its agreed-upon history was even murkier.

Panic disorder in antiquity

In ancient Greece, Plato was the first person to recognize and describe emotions or states of being related to what is today known as anxiety and panic. His observations were based on the Egyptian notion of an empty womb and the emotions and physical symptoms a woman felt when she was unable to conceive – like anxiety and panic today.

Panic disorder in medieval times

In medieval times, roughly a thousand-year stretch between 476 AD – 1450 AD, Muslim and Christian medicine followed traditions established centuries before by Plato and others. Concepts of madness and melancholia intermingled with folk beliefs and magical remedies, with the two dominating diagnoses in that time frame. It was also during this time that concepts of depression and delusion were first observed on a large scale.

Panic disorder and the Renaissance

Largely taking place between the 14th and 17th centuries, the Renaissance was a time of intellectual enlightenment. European scholars began to freely look upon Middle Eastern, Chinese, and other cultures to inform their understanding of emotions and human nature. Paracelsus (1493-1541) began applying academic rigor to alchemy, and questioned Hippocrates’ humors and the influence of seasons on a person’s state of mind. In 1621, English doctor Robert Burton began an intense study of the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic, as well as how they affected someone mentally and physically. He, too, put Hippocrates in his sights.

19th century and panic disorder

Before the mid-19th century, signs of anxiety and panic were closely linked to depression, but that slowly began to change. Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia published a book that delved into somatic causes and phobias and drew a link between depression and hypochondriasis. In 1858, distress was identified as the most severe form of anxiety. The latter half of the century featured academics and medical professionals who explored concepts of agoraphobia, different states of anxiety, and what today would be considered panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

Panic disorder: 20th century and beyond

In the early 20th century, anxiety and panic were considered biology-based (Pierre Janet in 1903 and Emil Kraepelin in 1907). Decades passed before evidence-based observations were made – especially by psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, which led to the first publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

People who experience panic disorder may benefit from certain medicine or psychotherapy, but there’s another option to consider: ketamine therapy from a specialty clinic. Ask your healthcare provider for more information, and whether ketamine is right for you.

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