Somatic symptoms and panic attacks: a retrospective study of learning experiences.
Individuals with panic attacks evaluate physical anxiety symptoms as dangerous and tend to respond to them with fear. In a retrospective questionnaire study, we explored childhood and adolescent learning experiences with respect to somatic symptoms of panickers. Compared to normal controls (N = 61), patients with panic disorder (N = 121), infrequent panickers (N = 86) and patients with other anxiety disorders (N = 38) reported more frequent instances prior to age 18 when they had experienced symptoms like dizziness, shortness of breath, palpitations or nausea, accompanied by special attention from their parents and instructions to restrain from strenuous or social activities. The differences were due to higher symptom frequencies in the anxiety groups. All anxiety groups reported more frequent uncontrolled behavior of their parents than controls. Patients with panic disorder and infrequent panickers reported that their parents had suffered more frequently from physical symptoms typical of anxiety than patients with other anxiety disorders or normal controls. Panickers, but not patients with other anxiety disorders, had observed sick-role behavior related to panic symptoms in their parents more often than controls. Panic attack Ss reported a higher number of household members suffering from chronic illnesses than controls and patients with other anxiety disorders. No group differences were found in the reported behavior of parents when Ss had colds. Overall, the results point to the role of severe illnesses and physical symptoms typical of anxiety in significant others in the history of Ss with panic attacks. These experiences during childhood and adolescence may contribute to their belief that physical symptoms are dangerous. In contrast, there was no specificity for panic with respect to the Ss' own physical symptoms or cold-related symptoms.