Health Library

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder

What is panic disorder?

If you have repeated, and unexpected panic attacks, you may have panic disorder. Panic disorder causes bouts of overwhelming fear when there is no specific cause for the fear. In between panic attacks, you may worry greatly about when and where the next one may occur. It can even keep you from leaving your home.

What causes panic disorder?

Panic disorder is a common mental health problem. It often starts in the teens or early adulthood, but may also begin in childhood. Women are twice as likely as men to have it. There may be a genetic link. It tends to run in families.

Panic disorder may be an overreaction of the body’s normal survival instincts and behaviors. In people with panic disorder, the body may be more sensitive to hormones that trigger excited feelings in the body.

What are the symptoms of panic disorder?

Panic attacks can occur in other types of anxiety disorders, too. Generally, if you have 4 or more panic attacks and if you always worry about having another, you have panic disorder. Symptoms of a panic attack may include:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sense of choking
  • Nausea or belly pain
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Feeling unreal or disconnected from oneself
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of "going crazy" or dying
  • Numbness
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Chest pain and other symptoms that mimic a heart attack

Panic disorder can be upsetting and disabling. An attack can last from a few minutes to an hour or sometimes longer.

The symptoms of a panic attack may look like other mental health conditions. Always see your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is panic disorder diagnosed?

Your doctor or a mental health professional may diagnose you with panic disorder based on your symptoms. Generally, if you have 4 or more panic attacks and if you are in constant fear of having another, you have panic disorder.

How is panic disorder treated?

Treatment may include:

  • Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications
  • Counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy

Treatment for panic disorders is usually quite effective. Treatment will help you learn to recognize that the symptoms are not life threatening. You will also learn coping skills and ways to relax  to decrease the intensity and length of the panic attack.

What are the complications of panic disorder?

As the panic gets worse and an attacks last longer, you may find it very tough to cope with everyday life, keep a job, or function in social settings. You may fear going into places where it may be hard to escape or you feel trapped. Some people can’t leave their home for fear that help is not available or that he or she will be forced into a situation that will trigger an attack.

People with this condition may also abuse alcohol or drugs to relieve stress.

Key points

  • Panic disorder is an overreaction of fear and anxiety to daily life stressors.
  • The reaction causes a hyper physical response, followed by intense worry that another attack will occur soon. This can upset the ability to function normally.
  • It is a common disorder and can often lead to depression.
  • Panic disorders can be disabling because you become so afraid of when the next panic attack may occur that you can’t cope with regular tasks.
  • Treatment involves use of anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants along with cognitive behavioral therapy.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Health Library

Sign Up Today for Free e-Newsletters

Find a doctor or make an appointment:
General Information: (314) 747-3000
One Barnes-Jewish Hospital Plaza
St. Louis, MO 63110
© Copyright 1997-2015, Barnes-Jewish Hospital. All Rights Reserved.