Like many other symptoms of the mental health world, panic attacks are an early warning sign for a variety of mental health concerns. This is especially true of anxiety disorders. New research from Columbia University and Temple University, and published in Journal of Affective Disorders, strengthens this link between panic attacks and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) defines SAD as, “the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations." Symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Trembling
  • Nausea or other abdominal troubles
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness/lightheadedness

Many of these symptoms overlap with panic attacks, making it easy to see the connection between the panic attacks people with SAD might experience and their confrontation of social situations. Still, SAD is often misdiagnosed. This study will improve diagnosis and treatment.

How SAD and Panic Attacks are Connected

After gathering a representative sample of 1,138 people with SAD, researchers evaluated patients by administering the Alcohol Use Disorder and Associated Disabilities Interview Schedule, DSM-IV version (AUDADIS-IV) and the Short Form-12 version 2 health survey (SF-12). The data for this study was all self-reported. A statistical analysis of this data revealed several trends:

  • Males, blacks, Asians, or people over 65 were less likely to have situational panic attacks
  • Unemployed people had an increased likelihood of panic attacks
  • People with situational panic attacks showed greater fear of social situations and did not cope well with them

What This Means for People with SAD

SAD manifests itself in a variety of ways, such as the ones listed above. People with SAD might not immediately realize that they have this disorder. Even mental health professionals sometimes misdiagnose a patient with this or any other anxiety disorder. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, SAD is frequently misdiagnosed as:

  • Clinical depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Schizoid personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Asperger's syndrome

For people with panic attacks as a symptom of SAD, it is especially important to receive a correct diagnosis. It could mean the difference between months more of suffering and relief of social anxieties. To help a mental health professional give you an accurate diagnosis, be completely honest with him or her. Withholding information will only delay correct treatment and prolong suffering.

Recommended For You

Jeremy Schwartz, LCSW
Carrie Potter, M.A.
Keith Whipple



Carrie M. Potter, Judy Wong, Richard G. Heimberg, Carlos Blanco, Shang-Min Liu, Shuai Wang, Franklin R. Schneier. Situational panic attacks in social anxiety disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2014; DOI:

Date of original publication: