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Panic disorder affects about 3.7 per cent of the Canadian population, a new survey suggests.

In 2002, just under one million people 15 or older reported having suffered from panic attacks at some point during their lives, Statistics Canada said.

The study, based on data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, found that the disorder was more common in women (4.6 per cent) than men (2.8 per cent) at the time of the study. Because it was the first major survey to look at panic disorders in Canadians, there are no previous data to compare the information with.

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Panic disorder is defined as suffering from recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. The attacks can include chest pain, shaking, difficulty breathing and palpitations.

Those who are having a panic attack often report a feeling of loss of control or "going crazy."

The study found that the average age of onset for panic disorder in Canada is 25, and three-quarters of sufferers had been affected by age 33.

"Panic disorder most commonly begins in adolescence or early adulthood, prime years for completing education, entering the job market and forming relationships. The resulting stress and disruption can have long-lasting personal, economic and social consequences," the authors said.

Those who were affected were less likely to have reported having worked in 2001 than those who had never had the disorder, and those with panic disorder were also more likely to report that they were permanently unable to work because of their condition.

Those more likely to be affected by panic disorder were separated or divorced and had lower education and income levels.

As well, people who experienced panic attacks were more likely to have also been afflicted by other mental illnesses such as agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or a major episode of depression, in the year before the survey was taken.

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And, they were much more likely than the general population to try to deal with their problems using drugs or alcohol or to smoke.

For example, 18 per cent of those who had panic disorder said they used alcohol to deal with stress, compared with 11 per cent who did not have the condition.

Illicit drug use was far more common in those who had panic disorder. Sixty-two per cent of people with the disorder said they used illicit drugs at some point, while 41 per cent of those with no history of the disorder had tried illicit drugs.

Additionally, those with panic disorder are likely to use negative ways of coping with problems, such as withdrawing or blaming themselves.

On a positive note, most of those who suffered from panic disorder (about seven in 10) sought help from a family doctor, a psychiatrist or psychologist.

"This was about four times the proportion among people who had never had the condition," the authors said.

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More women than men asked for help with the illness.

The authors of the study noted that people tended to ask for medical help when a panic attack happened "because the physical sensations of panic attacks sometimes resemble the onset of a heart attack or other health crisis."

The report on panic disorders came from a wider survey of the mental health of Canadians based on data from the 2002 Canadian Community Health Survey.

This fall, Statistics Canada has released several articles on mental health, including articles on bipolar 1 disorder, social anxiety disorder and alcohol and drug dependence.

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