Panic disorder is characterized by uncontrollable, recurrent episodes of panic and fear that peak within minutes. Panic attacks are accompanied by physical manifestations, such as heart palpitations, sweating, and dizziness as well as the fear of dying or becoming insane. Worry about having an attack may lead to additional anxiety and avoidance behaviors or to other problems in functioning.
A person with panic disorder experiences sudden and repeated panic attacks—episodes of intense fear and discomfort that reach a peak within a few minutes—during which time the individual experiences physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, breathlessness, vertigo, or abdominal distress, sometimes accompanied by the fear of dying or of going insane. These symptoms may seem similar to those of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. Panic disorder is often diagnosed after medical tests or emergency room visits have ruled out other serious illnesses.
Those who experience panic attacks are often nervous about having additional episodes. To avoid having a panic attack in a public space, they may avoid places like shopping malls or other crowded spots where previous incidents may have occurred or places that they fear will not allow them immediate access to help, such as an airplane or movie theater. This avoidance when severe may lead to agoraphobia, the inability to leave familiar, safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety about having a panic attack outside the home.
Panic disorder affects about 6 million American adults and is twice as common in women as in men. Panic attacks often begin in late adolescence or early adulthood, but not everyone who experiences these episodes goes on to develop panic disorder. Many people experience a single, isolated attack or very infrequent attacks.
A panic attack begins suddenly and unexpectedly and most often peaks within 10 to 20 minutes. At times, the resulting anxiety may last a couple of hours. Panic attacks can occur whether the person is calm or anxious. Recalling a past attack may trigger a new one. The frequency of panic attacks can vary, and for some people the fear of having an additional attack may lead them to avoid situations where escape may be difficult, such as being in a crowd or traveling in a car or bus.
To be formally diagnosed with panic disorder, a patient must have experienced persistent concern or worry about having a panic attack or the consequences of having one (losing control, going crazy). In addition, he or she may have developed avoidance behaviors related to perceived triggers of an attack, such as exercise or unfamiliar situations.
With panic disorder, at least four of these symptoms must occur during an attack:
• Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate • Sweating • Trembling or shaking • Shortness of breath or a sensation of smothering • A choking feeling • Chest pain or discomfort • Nausea or abdominal distress • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint • Feeling detached from oneself or reality • Fear of losing control or of impending doom • Fear of dying • Numbness or a tingling sensation • Chills or hot flashes
Culture-specific symptoms such as neck soreness, headache, uncontrollable screaming, or crying may also be observed.
People with panic disorder may have additional problems related to alcohol/substance abuse, depression, and anxiety.
Many factors are linked to the development of panic attacks and panic disorder. In terms of personality, those who are more prone to anxiety, and more likely to believe that anxiety is harmful, are more likely to experience panic attacks. Stressors and interpersonal issues, such as a death in the family or adverse life events, tend to be seen in the months preceding a panic attack.
Researchers have conducted both animal and human studies to pinpoint the particular parts of the brain that are involved in anxiety and fear. Because fear evolved to deal with danger, it sets off an immediate protective response without conscious thought. This fear response is believed to be coordinated by the amygdala, a structure deep inside the brain. Although relatively small, the amygdala is quite complex, and recent studies suggest that anxiety disorders may be associated with abnormal activity within it.
Panic disorder is effectively treated with medications and therapy. Appropriate treatment by a professional can help lessen or prevent panic attacks by reducing the symptoms or the fears related to having an attack. Relapses may occur, but they can be treated effectively.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, teaches patients to see the links between the their thoughts, beliefs, and actions. By changing distorted thought patterns that maintain the anxiety and by exposing the person to anxiety-provoking symptoms or situations in a gradual manner, CBT can help create mastery over the anxiety and panic symptoms. Therapy may help those with panic disorder to
• Understand their distorted views of life stressors, such as other people's behavior or life events • Learn to decrease their sense of helplessness by recognizing and replacing panic-causing thoughts • Learn stress management and relaxation techniques to help when symptoms occur • Practice systematic desensitization and exposure therapy, in which they are asked to relax, then imagine the things that cause the anxiety, working from the least fearful to the most fearful. Gradual exposure to the real-life situation also has been used with success to help people overcome their fears.
Several medications have been found to be effective for relieving panic disorder. Antidepressants, are one class of medications that must be taken for several weeks before symptoms begin to disappear.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, work in the brain via a chemical messenger called serotonin. SSRIs commonly prescribed for panic disorder include Fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), escitalopram (Lexapro), paroxetine (Paxil), and citalopram (Celexa). SSRIs are also used to treat panic disorder when it occurs in combination with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, or depression. SSRI's tend to have fewer side effects than other antidepressants. Patients may initially experience nausea, drowsiness, diarrhea, or sexual side effects when they first take SSRIs, but over time, symptoms subside. An adjustment in dosage or a switch to another SSRI may also correct the problem. Clients should discuss all side effects or concerns with their doctor so that any needed changes in medication can be made.
Benzodiazepines, including alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan), may be prescribed for patients to help with more acute symptoms of panic disorder. These drugs alleviate symptoms quickly and have fewer side effects other than drowsiness, but frequent use may lead to dependence on the medication. They are not recommended for patients who have alcohol or substance abuse issues.
When taking medications, it is important for clients to be educated about potential side effects, the rationale for the type of medication prescribed, and other drugs or substances that may counteract or interact with the effects of the medications. Before stopping taking the prescribed drug, or if the medication does not seem to alleviate symptoms, the doctor should be consulted.
If symptoms recur at a later date, treatment should be sought to help restore a more functional life.
- Archives of General Psychiatry
- National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Lee N. Robins, Darrel A. Regier, eds., Psychiatric Disorders in America: the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. New York: The Free Press, 1991
- US Department of Health and Human Services
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
Last reviewed 02/07/2019