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Panic Disorder 


Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder.  People with panic disorder experience recurring unexpected sudden episodes of intense terror and physical symptoms.  The physical symptoms can be so severe that many people question if they are having a heart attack.  People with panic disorder frequently live in fear of another attack and may be reluctant to leave their homes.  This can interfere with socialization and attending work or school.  Medication and therapy can rapidly improve the symptoms of panic disorder.

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The exact cause of panic disorder is unknown.  Researchers suspect that it may be associated with several factors.  Some researchers indicate that abnormalities in brain structures or the amount of certain chemicals in the brain can cause inaccurate nerve signals regarding fear and fear responses.  There may be a genetic component to this disorder, as it appears to run in families in some cases.  Additionally, severe emotional stress such as the death of a loved one, abusive relationships, or other circumstances appears to contribute to panic disorder. 
Panic disorder is more common in females than males.  It most frequently occurs in young adults, but may also occur in children and the elderly.  People with panic disorder experience recurrent unexpected panic attacks with at least one attack followed by one month or more of worrying about having another attack or changing behavior related to the attack.

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Symptoms of panic disorder include intense feelings and physical symptoms.  People with panic disorder experience panic attacks that begin suddenly and without warning.  A panic attack may last from a few minutes to over a half-hour.  People with panic disorder experience four or more of the following syndromes during an episode:

You may feel out of control, "losing touch" with reality, fear that you are dying, or afraid that you are going crazy.  You may have chest pains and your heart may race.  It may be difficult to breathe and swallow.  It may feel like you are having a heart attack, but panic disorder is not related to true heart disease.  You may experience tightness in your throat or a choking feeling.  You may feel dizzy and sweat, shake, or tremble.  Your hands and feet may tingle or feel numb.  You may hyperventilate.  Other symptoms include chills, hot flashes, nausea, and cramps. 

Panic disorder may cause people to restrict their lives because of fear of another panic attack.  They may stay at home more, quit their job, or avoid common activities such as grocery shopping.  This condition is called agoraphobia (fear of public places.)  Depression, phobias, substance abuse, and irritable bowel syndrome may also accompany panic disorder.

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A psychiatrist can begin to diagnose panic disorder by using specific diagnostic criteria.  Your psychiatrist can diagnose co-existing disorders as well.  A medical examination may be necessary to rule out heart disease or digestive tract conditions with similar symptoms.

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Panic disorder is a real illness and can be treated.  The goal of treatment is to alleviate the symptoms and eliminate or reduce the number of panic attacks.  Treatment may include medication, individual therapy, group therapy, or a combination of treatments.  Appropriate treatment can significantly reduce or prevent panic attacks for the majority of people.

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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

The iHealthSpot patient education library was written collaboratively by the iHealthSpot editorial team which includes Senior Medical Authors Dr. Mary Car-Blanchard, OTD/OTR/L and Valerie K. Clark, and the following editorial advisors: Steve Meadows, MD, Ernie F. Soto, DDS, Ronald J. Glatzer, MD, Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, Christopher M. Nolte, MD, David Applebaum, MD, Jonathan M. Tarrash, MD, and Paula Soto, RN/BSN. This content complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information. The library commenced development on September 1, 2005 with the latest update/addition on April 13th, 2016. For information on iHealthSpot’s other services including medical website design, visit