What Is Panic Disorder?

Medically Reviewed By Matthew Boland, PhD
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Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It involves panic attacks which can happen anytime, anywhere, and with little or no warning. Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by panic attacks.

A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear, even without an apparent cause. It can happen anytime and anywhere. Panic attacks are often accompanied by physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Panic attacks are fairly common and many people will experience one at some point in their life. However, not everyone who has a panic attack will develop panic disorder.

This article will discuss what panic disorder is, its symptoms, what causes it, and how it is treated.

What is panic disorder?

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Panic disorder is one type of anxiety disorder.

The main characteristic of panic disorder is the occurrence of panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden onset of fear, even without an apparent cause.

The physical symptoms of a panic attack, such as shortness of breath, racing heart, and chest pain, can often make people feel as though they are having a heart attack.

While most people will experience a panic attack at some point in their life, those with panic disorder experience them on a more regular basis. Panic attacks can occur anywhere from several times per day to only a few times per year. The fear of the next panic attack can affect your daily life, and cause you to avoid places and situations where you had a panic attack before.

Panic disorder often begins in the late teenage years or in early adulthood. People assigned female at birth are more likely to develop panic disorder than males.

If you have had at least two panic attacks with no clear cause, followed by approximately 1 month of feeling fear that another attack may happen, contact your doctor.

Symptoms and examples of panic disorder

While anxiety does play a role in panic disorder, the main symptom that sets it apart from other anxiety disorders is the panic attack.

Symptoms of panic disorder include:

  • sudden and repeated panic attacks
  • an intense worry about when the next panic attack will happen
  • fear of impending doom
  • avoidance of places where panic attacks have occured before

Panic attacks can come on suddenly at any time and often do not have an apparent cause. There are many different symptoms that can occur during a panic attack.

The symptoms of a panic attack include:

Not everyone will experience a panic attack in the same way. Most panic attacks last 5–20 minutes, though some can last up to an hour.

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Panic disorder vs. anxiety

Many people will use the term “anxiety attack,” which is not a recognized medical term, to refer to feeling anxious or having a panic attack.

Anxiety is a typical part of life. Almost everyone will experience anxiety at some time in their life.

Anxiety involves feeling nervous about something that is going to happen or might happen. You may also experience feelings of nervousness and tension. Generally, when people experience anxiety, it goes away after a short time.

For those with an anxiety disorder, however, persistent and excessive feelings of anxiety must be present for at least 6 months.

With panic disorder, not only does the person experience anxiety, but they also live with panic attacks that can happen unexpectedly. Often, the fear of the next panic attack can be so overwhelming, you might avoid situations and withdraw from those around you.

The main difference between panic disorder and anxiety is the panic attack.

If you have had more than two panic attacks, with lasting feelings of fear for another one, contact your doctor.

Causes of panic disorder

As with many psychological disorders, the exact cause of panic disorder is unknown.

However, panic disorder likely occurs due to a combination of psychological and physical factors.

Some of these factors include:

  • genetics
  • traumatic life experiences
  • neurotransmitters
  • increased sensitivity to carbon dioxide
  • environmental factors during childhood, such as modeling adult behavior

Diagnosis of panic disorder

If you have any of the symptoms of panic disorder and believe that panic negatively impacts your life, contact your doctor.

If you experience regular, unexpected panic attacks, followed by a prolonged period of time worrying about another attack, your doctor may diagnose you with panic disorder.

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and how long you have been experiencing them. They may also choose to carry out a physical exam to rule out any underlying conditions that may cause your symptoms.

Most likely, they will also refer you to a mental health specialist to verify the diagnosis and help create a treatment plan that is right for you.

It can feel embarrassing to talk about your panic attacks, or you may avoid doing so out of fear of taking medications, but it is important to discuss your concerns with your doctor.

Left untreated, panic disorder can severely affect your day-to-day life and relationships.

Treatments for panic disorder

Your doctor may work closely with a mental health professional to create the treatment plan that is best for you and your situation.

The most common treatments for panic disorder include:

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There are also some self-help treatments you can use in combination with the treatment from your doctor. Always discuss any additional treatments with your doctor before using them.

Self-help techniques for panic disorder include:

  • Remind yourself that the symptoms of your panic attack are uncomfortable, but non-life-threatening.
  • Put your focus on something outside of your body and your symptoms.
  • Avoid “self-talk” that focuses on your symptoms. Do not tell yourself to stop panicking or to relax.
  • Do not give in to the urge to flee the situation, as this can reinforce the idea that your panic attacks are unbearable. Sitting and allowing the symptoms to pass will help you to gain confidence in your ability to cope with your panic attacks.

Supporting others with panic disorder

You may wonder how you can not only support yourself but others around you living with panic disorder.

There are a few ways you can learn to support yourself or your loved ones.

Educate yourself

One of the best ways you can support yourself or a loved one living with panic disorder is to learn more about it. Learn about different treatments for it, research the warning signs, and keep up to date on the latest research about panic disorder.

Communicate

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of panic disorder, sit down and have an open and honest conversation about it with someone you trust. In the same way, if you believe someone you are close to has panic disorder, set aside some time to talk with them about it and reassure them of your support.

Validate their experience

If your loved one has panic disorder, it is important to accept their symptoms and allow space for your loved one to experience them. Avoid telling them not to think about their panic attack or to relax, as this can be invalidating.

Know when to seek help

If your loved one’s anxiety and panic attacks begin to directly interfere with daily life, that is a sign to seek help. You should encourage your affected loved one to talk with their doctor to explore options for managing these symptoms.

Summary

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It involves panic attacks which can happen at any time and typically with little to no warning.

While many people will experience a panic attack at some point in their life, you should contact your doctor if you experience attacks regularly, often worry another attack will happen, and feel panic is affecting your daily life.

Panic disorder is treatable and you can learn to overcome it with the proper treatment plan.

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Medical Reviewer: Matthew Boland, PhD
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.