What is Panic Disorder?

November 23, 2013

What is Panic Disorder?

Have you ever experienced sudden attacks of fear and uneasiness? Have you ever felt physical symptoms such as sweating, chills and a pounding heart without warning? Have you ever believed in a stressful situation that at any moment you are going to die? When these symptoms have no relation to the environment or context, the cause might be a panic attack. When these attacks repeatedly happen to a person, they might be suffering from a psychological condition known as panic disorder.
Panic disorder is a sub-type of anxiety disorder.  The reactions of a person suffering from a panic disorder are different from our normal reactions to everyday stressful occurrences. This disorder manifests a severe form of anxiety; the symptoms are sudden and intense. The comorbidity of panic attacks with other anxiety disorders has made it difficult to diagnose. The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which mental health professionals use to diagnose patients, lists the following symptoms and criteria of panic disorder (DSM-5, American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

1. Recurrent unexpected panic attacks

2. At least one of the attacks has been followed by 1 month (or more) of one or both of the following:

–  Persistent concern or worry about additional panic attacks or their consequences (e.g., losing control, having a heart attack, going crazy).

–  Significant maladaptive change in behavior related to the attacks (e.g., behaviors designed to avoid having panic attacks, such as avoidance of exercise or unfamiliar situations).

3. The panic attacks are not restricted to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., an illegal drug or a medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., hyperthyroidism, cardiopulmonary disorders).

4. The panic attacks are not restricted to the symptoms of another mental disorder, such as Social Phobia (e.g., in response to feared social situations), Specific Phobia (e.g., in response to a circumscribed phobic object or situation), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (e.g., in response to dirt in someone with an obsession about contamination), Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (e.g., in response to stimuli associated with a traumatic event), or Separation Anxiety Disorder (e.g., in response to being away from home or close relatives).

Panic attacks are mostly prompted by situations that are perceived to be very stressful, such as speaking in front of a crowd.  A sense of panic quickly overwhelms the victim and the immediate response is to completely remove them from the situation. Chances of experiencing a panic attack increase if person is away from home and out of their comfort zone. Some attacks may last longer than others, but in most cases they reach the peak symptoms in 10 minutes and return to normal in 20 to 30 minutes. Unfortunately, it is not possible to predict when it will happen again, but we know that the chances to have another attack are greater for people who have already had a panic attack . Women are also at a greater risk for having panic attacks, and most of the cases have supported the fact that it usually occurs during early adulthood.  Depressions, drug abuse or suicidal attempts may go hand-in-hand with panic disorder.

The reasons behind panic disorders are currently unknown, but there are several potentially contributing factors.  These include genetics, as well as with major life changes such as entering college, joining the professional workplace, and any life stressor like the death of loved one, loss of major possessions or marital problems.  It can also be the result of traumatic or embarrassing experiences that occurred at some time during their lives.  The mere thought or recall of those memories can trigger an attack.

The positive: panic disorder is treatable. Anti-anxiety medications are not the only option. Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven to be the most effective therapy for treating panic disorder.  It focuses on changing the irrational thought patterns in the patients mind that are instigating the attacks. Exposure therapy, group therapy, self-help techniques, and alternative treatments such as acupuncture are also being used for treatment of panic disorder.

The suffering is not only experienced by the patient; family members, friends and many others that are exposed to the panic disorder suffer from its negative effects. But, they can also be the best source of emotional support, understanding, hope and recovery. It is not easy to deal with a family member or friend who has a panic disorder.  However, one of the most difficult challenges can also yield the greatest rewards.  By simply listening and supporting the person suffering with this disorder, everyone can start down the path to recovery.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington American Psychiatric Publishing.


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