Symptoms | Causes | Diagnosis | Treatments

Panic Disorder is a severe mental illness that is characterized by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes.[1]

The intensity and frequency of panic attacks can vary drastically. For example, someone with panic disorder may experience a panic attack once per week or one every day. On the other end of the spectrum, someone with this condition may experience much less frequent panic attacks, such as a couple per month.

The intense anxiety someone with panic disorder will experience when triggered makes day to day life very difficult as they may be overly cautious when in certain situations due to the fear of becoming triggered and having a panic attack.

It has been shown that about 2-3% of American adults and adolescents experience panic disorder in a given year and it is twice as common in women than in men.[1][2]

Symptoms of Panic Disorder

People suffering from this condition will experience very intense and unexpected bouts of anxiety when triggered by certain events. Once triggered, they will immediately enter into a fight, flight, or freeze state of mind.

When in such a state, their heart rate will increase, their respiratory rate will increase, their muscles will tense up, they will begin to sweat, and their senses will become sharper. Essentially, their body will be preparing itself for imminent danger, even though they actually aren’t in real danger.

In fact, in some instances when someone experiences a panic attack, the intensity of the attack may be so overwhelming that the individual experiencing it may lose consciousness and pass out as a result of it. Although this phenomena does not always occur with those suffering from this condition, people who have panic attacks may frequently worry about passing out when they are in a very anxiety provoking situation.

It may not be uncommon for someone who has panic disorder to also suffer from additional anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder or phobias such as agoraphobia (fear of crowded places) or glossophobia (fear of public speaking) due to the fact that they will likely share the similar symptom of experiencing panic attacks. However, this will depend on several factors, such as genetics and environment.

Common symptoms of a panic attack according to the DSM-5:[1]

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.
  • Sweating.
  • Trembling or shaking.
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering.
  • Feelings of choking.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Nausea or abdominal distress.
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint.
  • Chills or heat sensations.
  • Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations).
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself).
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy.”
  • Fear of dying.

Causes of Panic Disorder

It is not definitively known as to what causes panic disorder, but the following factors are likely to play a significant role:

  • Genetics
  • Physiology
  • Temperament
  • Environment

Individuals with a family history of panic disorder may be at risk for developing it themselves. In fact, researchers have found that several parts of the brain, as well as biological processes, play a key role in fear and anxiety.[3]

What may also increase one’s chances of developing this condition is if they already suffer from a mental illness. For example, it has been shown that the prevalence of panic disorder is increased in people with other conditions, especially other anxiety disorders like agoraphobia, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and maybe even mild alcohol use disorder.[1]

One’s genetics, as well as the environment they grew up in will likely play the largest role in determining someone’s risk for developing panic disorder. It is commonly believed that there are multiple genes which confer someone’s vulnerability to developing this condition. However, the exact genes, gene products, or functions related to the genetic regions implicated remain unknown.[1]

Diagnostic Criteria

To get properly diagnosed with panic disorder, you will need to go through a psychiatric evaluation with your psychiatrist, psychologist, or other accredited mental health professional who can legally diagnose mental disorders.

Psychiatric evaluations typically entail getting asked questions about your symptoms, such as how intense and frequent you experience them.

According to the DSM-5, there is specific criteria which must be met in order for a mental health professional to diagnose someone with panic disorder.

Such criteria includes, but is not limited to, recurrent unexpected panic attacks, palpitations, sensations of shortness of breath, feelings of choking, nausea or abdominal distress, feeling dizzy or light-headed, and derealization, among other things.[1] 

Panic Disorder Treatments

Talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be very beneficial for someone suffering from panic disorder. According to the American Psychology Association, CBT is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness.[4]

Anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication may also be very effective for someone suffering from panic attacks as it can help to soothe their anxiety at the onset of a panic attack or during one. Medications such as Valium and Xanax may be prescribed for someone suffering from panic disorder to help them when their symptoms become exacerbated. Drugs such as these are typically taken as needed.

If you think you may have panic disorder or if you are suffering from some of the symptoms of this condition, then you should talk to your doctor as soon as you can so that you can be properly diagnosed and treated.


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  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing.
  2. Panic Disorder. (n.d.). Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Retrieved November 2, 2020, from
  3. NIMH » Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms. (2020, November 2). National Institute of Mental Health.
  4. What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from