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Panic Attack Basics

5 FAQs About Panic Attacks


Updated May 13, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Panic attacks are the most common symptom associated with the diagnosis of panic disorder. However, they can occur with a variety of anxiety and mood disorders, as well as other medical conditions. Listed here are 5 FAQs to help you better understand panic attacks.

1. What is it Like to Have a Panic Attack?

A panic attack can be described as an intense feeling of fear or extreme nervousness that is brought on abruptly. Typically, these feelings of terror and apprehension occur without warning and are much greater than warranted by any actual threat or danger. Panic attacks often last for a brief duration, peaking at about 10 minutes. However, the effects of a panic attack can linger for several hours following the initial attack.

Panic attacks frequently involve a combination of emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms. For example, when experiencing a panic attack, a person may feel embarrassed or distraught over their symptoms. A variety of somatic symptoms can occur, including sweating, shaking, and chest pain. The person may fear that they might lose control of their body or mind. Overall, these symptoms can lead to feelings of terror, causing the person to want to escape from their situation.

2. How Can a Doctor Diagnose My Panic Attacks?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists a set of distinct criteria for panic attacks. According to the DSM, a panic attack involves a sudden fear accompanied by four or more of the following symptoms:

Your doctor will also want to rule out the possibility of any separate medical conditions or related and co-occurring conditions.

3. Are All Panic Attacks the Same?

Not all panic attacks are experienced in the same way. The following describes the three different types of panic attacks:

  • Unexpected (uncued) panic attacks: These attacks occur suddenly without any internal (e.g., thoughts, physical sensations) or external (e.g., a situation that causes great fear and anxiety) cues.

  • Situationally bound (cued) panic attacks: These attacks occur when a person is subjected to or anticipating exposure to a particular trigger. For example, a person with a fear of heights may have a panic attack when inside of a tall building.

  • Situationally predisposed panic attacks: These attacks are similar to cued panic attacks, but do not always occur after subjection to a feared situation. These attacks also don’t always occur at the time the person is exposed to the trigger. For instance, a person who has a fear of flying may not always have a panic attack while on a plane or may have one after already being on a flight for several hours.

4. If I Have Panic Attacks, Does That Mean I Have Panic Disorder?

Having panic attacks does not necessarily mean that a person has panic disorder. People who have panic disorder experience recurring and unexpected panic attacks. Situationally cued and predisposed panic attacks also frequently occur among people with panic disorder. However, these types of panic attacks are also common among other anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder, PTSD, and specific phobias.

5. Are Panic Attacks Treatable?

Panic attacks are a treatable condition. Typically, treatment options involve a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Medications include benzodiazepines, a type of anti-anxiety medication that can provide rapid relief for panic symptoms. Psychotherapy can help you explore your fears and learn to manage your frightening physical sensations.

There are also numerous self-help strategies for getting through a panic attack. Some of the more common techniques include:

If you are experiencing panic attacks, it is important that you seek out professional help. The sooner you are treated, the more likely you will be able to get some relief and begin to manage your panic attacks.


American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision" 2000 Washington, DC: Author.

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