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Panic Disorder

What is panic disorder?

Panic is a rush of overwhelming anxiety that comes on very quickly. People use the word "terror" to describe the severity of the anxiety connected with panic. Sometimes the sudden episode is called a panic attack.

What characteristics are associated with panic disorder?

People who experience panic will have some of the following symptoms:

  • Very rapid, pounding heartbeat (Often a feeling that their heart is going to beat out of their chest)
  • Increased perspiration
  • Shaking
  • Feeling of smothering or choking
  • Chest pains
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Numbness and tingling of extremities

Is there a genetic basis for panic disorder?

Yes, panic and panic attacks tend to cluster in certain families. In fact, of those people diagnosed with panic, about fifteen percent (15%) of their family members will also suffer from the disorder.

Does panic affect males, females, or both?

About twice as many women as men are diagnosed with panic.

At what age does panic disorder appear?

Although panic can happen at any age, it generally first occurs in early adulthood.

How common is panic disorder in our society?

Panic is quite common in the United States. About one to two percent (1%-2%) of our population experiences panic.

How is panic disorder diagnosed?

Panic is diagnosed by a mental health professional or by a physician after taking a careful personal history from the patient/client. The diagnosis can be made while the patient/client is having a panic attack, but it can also be made following such an episode.

Since people who are experiencing a panic attack often exhibit symptoms similar to those associated with a heart attack, it is important not to overlook a physical illness that might mimic or contribute to this disorder. If there is any question that the individual might have a physical problem, the patient/client should be examined by a medical doctor. Once the examining physician eliminates possible other medical problems, the diagnosis of panic attack can be made and the patient/client can be treated for anxiety and panic.

How is panic disorder treated?

In an emergency room, rapid acting, antianxiety medications can be given to a person with panic. The antianxiety medicine gives the person relief from his/her panic, and the feelings of terror subside. To prevent future attacks, some types of antianxiety and antidepressant medications can be prescribed.

Therapy, such as behavior, family, or insight-oriented therapy, is very helpful for individuals with a history of panic.

What happens to someone with panic disorder?

About fifty percent (50%) of those with panic disorder recover totally. About twenty percent (20%) of those with the disorder will have repeated panic attacks and suffer long-term. Research shows that more than fifty percent (50%) of those who experience severe anxiety or panic also have depression. For people with panic attacks and depression, treatment of the depression will generally cause the panic to diminish or stop.

What can people do if they need help?

If you, a friend, or a family member would like more information and you have a therapist or a physician, please discuss your concerns with that person.


For additional information on Panic Disorder, review the NIMH's Understanding Panic Disorder.

Reviewed by athealth on February 6, 2014.