What Is A Panic Disorder?

Panic Disorder is characterized by panic attacks, which are short (less than 15 minutes) episodes of intense fear that are often accompanied by physical symptoms and feelings of dread/doom. A panic attack differs from a normal fear response because it strikes without the presence of a threat or an oncoming attack. Someone with a Panic Disorder experiences panic attacks so often that they begin to spend a significant amount of their time worrying about having another attack, worrying that they are losing their mind, or changing their daily routine because of the panic attacks. If this lasts for a month or more, Panic Disorder is diagnosed.

Panic Disorder Symptoms

Since Panic Disorder is largely defined by the presence of panic attacks, symptoms of panic attacks are fundamental to understanding the symptoms of Panic Disorder. An individual may be experiencing a panic attack if the following occurs:

  • A sudden surreal feeling of detachment from oneself
  • Difficulty breathing and feelings of choking
  • An accelerated heart rate
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Numbness and tingling sensations
  • A sudden feeling of intense fear and/or anxiety
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Chest pain

Panic Attack Causes

Some people are aware of events or circumstances that might trigger an attack and know how to avoid them or be prepared. Most, however, are frequently caught off guard, with little or no warning to alert them. Common reasons why a panic attack may occur include:

  • Major life stress
  • Family history
  • Abnormalities in the brain
  • Substance abuse

Treating Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

While panic attacks may be one of the most terrifying and unpleasant experiences a person can endure, the good news is that panic attacks and disorders respond exceptionally well to treatment. Like most anxiety disorders, both medications and psychotherapy are effective for panic disorder. Many people fully recover from panic disorder with proper therapy and without the use of medications, but anti-anxiety medications are sometimes used depending upon the frequency and severity of attacks.


  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Involves understanding the correlations between one's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and using these connections to unravel the patterns of one's anxiety.


There are several different classes of medications that are used to treat panic disorder. All of these types of medications reduce anxiety but do so in different ways and with different side effects and risks.

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): This class of medication works by increasing the signaling between neurons that use a chemical called serotonin to communicate with each other. This increase in serotonin-mediated signaling decreases anxiety. SSRIs are taken every day regardless of anxiety level and usually take 6-8 weeks to reach full effect. The following drugs are classified as SSRIs: fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), paroxetine (Paxil), and fluvoxamine (Luvox).
  • Benzodiazepines: Effective medication for anxiety, common benzodiazepines include diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), clonazepam (Klonopin), and alprazolam (Xanax). These medications are not as widely used as they once were because unlike SSRIs, they have the potential to cause addiction and potentially dangerous withdrawal syndromes if they are abruptly stopped after being taken for a prolonged period of time.
  • Others: There are several other medications that are sometimes prescribed for anxiety and are not SSRIs or benzodiazepines. These include gabapentin (Neurontin), quetiapine (Seroquel), and hydroxyzine (Atarax).

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Tony Attwood, Ph.D.
Katherine J. Gold, M.D., M.S.W., M.S.
Iris Bräuninger, Ph.D.
Liz Matheis, Ph.D.


Date of original publication:

Updated: September 04, 2016