A person with panic disorder experiences sudden and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, breathlessness, vertigo or abdominal distress. Because these symptoms are so similar to those of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions, panic disorder may not be diagnosed until extensive and expensive medical tests have ruled out other serious illnesses.
Even between panic attacks, it is common for sufferers to be extremely anxious. These people often develop phobias about places such as shopping malls—where previous episodes have occurred. They also develop fears about experiences that have set off an attack, such as an airplane flight. As panic attacks become more frequent, the person may begin to shun situations that might trigger another episode. This avoidance may lead to agoraphobia, the inability to leave familiar, safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety.
Panic disorder affects about 6 million American adults and is twice as common in women as men. Panic attacks often begin in late adolescence or early adulthood, but not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder. Many people have just one attack and never have another. The tendency to develop panic attacks appears to be inherited.