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What is Panic Disorder?

Learn the Basics of Panic Disorder


Updated June 23, 2014

worried woman with head in her hands
Tom Merton/OJO Images/Getty Images

Have you, or a loved one, been diagnosed with panic disorder? Or, perhaps you are experiencing recurring panic attacks and aren’t sure what to do next.

Learning what panic disorder is, and what it is not, will help you on your journey to understand the disorder. This understanding is your first step toward recovery or providing support to a loved one.


What is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is one of several anxiety-related illnesses classified in the DSM-IV-TR. Other major types of anxiety disorders include:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Social Phobia
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Specific Phobia


Statistics and Risks

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, panic disorder affects approximately 6 million American adults over the age of 18 in any given year. This translates to about 2.7 percent of the adult population in the United States. Panic Disorder typically develops in early adulthood, but it may also begin in childhood or later adulthood. Women are twice as likely as men to get the disorder.

Individuals with a first-line biological relative (e.g., mother, father or sibling) with panic disorder are 8 times more likely to develop the condition. If the family history includes first-line relatives who develop the disorder before age 20, the risk is even greater. Studies of identical twins also show a genetic connection as both twins are more likely to develop the disorder.


Symptoms of Panic Disorder

Recurring panic attacks are the hallmark features of panic disorder. Panic attacks are sudden and intense feelings of terror, fear or apprehension, without the presence of actual danger. The symptoms of a panic attack usually happen suddenly, peak within 10 minutes and then subside. However, some attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins.

After having a panic attack, the individual may continue to experience extreme anxiety for several hours. More often than not, the panic episode causes excessive worry about having another attack. It is not unusual for one to become so consumed with worry and fear, that he or she develops behavioral changes in the hopes of avoiding another attack. This may lead to the development of agoraphobia, which complicates recovery and limits one’s ability to function in usual daily activities.


Diagnosing Panic Disorder

Diagnosing panic disorder may be somewhat complicated because the symptoms can mimic many physical or other psychological disorders. Before making a diagnosis of panic disorder, other illnesses must be ruled out. It is not uncommon for an individual with panic disorder to undergo extensive medical examination and testing before a diagnosis is made.

If a physical cause for one’s symptoms is not found, a referral to a qualified mental health professional may be made. This professional will rule out other psychological causes for the symptoms and base the diagnosis on criteria outlined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR).



The American Psychiatric Association suggests a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication to treat panic disorder. Some studies suggest that other types of psychotherapy may also be beneficial in the treatment of panic disorder. For example, several studies have shown panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy is also effective in treating panic disorder. The focus of treatment is to help clients become aware of their unconscious conflicts and fantasies, and to identify defense mechanisms that influence the continuation of symptoms. Psychotherapy is usually performed by an experienced counselor, social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist.

The usual medications to treat panic disorder are antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines). Antidepressants may be prescribed even if the individual does not have clinical depression because many antidepressants also inhibit panic attacks. The most common class of antidepressants used to treat panic disorder is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Medications to treat panic disorder may be prescribed by a psychiatrist or a primary care physician.


The Importance of Getting Help

The symptoms of panic disorder can be frightening and potentially disabling. But, the vast majority of sufferers will find significant relief with treatment. The sooner treatment begins after the onset of panic disorder, the more quickly symptom reduction or elimination will be realized. However, even those with long-term symptoms will generally experience improvement with treatment, and most will regain the freedom to resume many of the activities they once enjoyed.


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


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