Definition

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It is known for bursts of terror known as panic attacks. These attacks are not only feelings of terror but also cause intense physical symptoms. It can feel similar to a heart attack.

Panic attacks can cause people to withdraw to avoid events that trigger attacks. This can cause a lot of problems in day to day life and relationships.

Causes

The cause of panic disorders is not clear. A mix of events, genetics, or other health factors may play a role. They may cause changes in how the brain understands and reacts to stress.

Risk Factors

Things that may increase your chance of panic disorder include:

  • Family history of anxiety
  • Poor coping skills
  • History of physical or sexual abuse
  • Stressful life events
  • High sensitivity to physical sensations
  • History of another anxiety disorder or being an anxious person
  • Cigarette smoking during adolescence and young adulthood

Symptoms

Panic attacks can cause:

  • Sudden and intense episodes of fear
  • Racing, pounding, or skipping heartbeat
  • Chest pain, pressure, or discomfort
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Choking sensation or lump in the throat
  • Excessive sweating
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Tingling or numbness in parts of the body
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feelings of unreality or being detached from the body
  • An urge to flee
  • Fear of impending doom such as death, a heart attack, suffocation, loss of control, or embarrassment
  • Stomach pain

Symptoms of Anxiety
Physiological effects of anxiety

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will also be done. The doctor will ask some questions about mental health and stresses. It is important to be honest and open with answers. This will help to make a diagnosis and find the right treatment.

Treatment

Treatment can help to decrease the number and intensity of panic attacks. It can improve quality of life. There is no 1 plan for treatment. A combination of steps will be planned based on individual needs. Treatment steps may include:

General Education

Education helps people to better understand what panic disorder is and how it can be treated. Knowing that symptoms are not life-threatening can help. Education can also help to set realistic goals for overcoming the disorder.

Learning about panic disorder is enough to help some relieve symptoms.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy. Therapy focuses on:

  • Understanding what causes panic attack and anxiety
  • Forming healthier thinking patterns
  • Breathing exercises to increase relaxation

Medications

Medicine may help to ease symptoms. It may be used to help therapy. Medicine that may be used are:

  • Antidepressants
  • Benzodiazepines—has higher risk of addiction

Prevention

There are no steps to reduce the risk of a panic disorder. Steps that may lower the risk of a panic attack are:

  • Avoid drinks that contain caffeine.
  • Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.
  • Healthy sleep habits.
  • Schedule a relaxation time.
  • Regular exercise—aim for at least 30 minutes per day most days of the week.
RESOURCES:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America
https://adaa.org

Mental Health America
http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Psychiatric Association
https://www.cpa-apc.org

Canadian Psychological Association
https://cpa.ca

REFERENCES:

Answers to your questions about panic disorder. American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/panic-disorder.aspx. Accessed January 31, 2020.

Panic disorder. Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. Available at: https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder. Accessed January 31, 2020.

Panic disorder. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115030/Panic-disorder. Accessed January 31, 2020.

8/22/2006 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116901/Agoraphobia: Furukawa TA, Watanabe N, Churchill R. Psychotherapy plus antidepressant for panic disorder with or without agoraphobia: systematic review. Br J Psychiatry. 2006;188:305-312.

Last reviewed January 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Adrian Preda, MD  Last Updated: 8/12/2020