Panic Disorder Contributed by: Caitlin Burns

What is Panic Disorder?

What is Panic Disorder?


Panic disorder is a condition in which unexpected panic attacks occur regularly and for no apparent reason. A panic attack is a rush of intense fear and anxiety which has both physical and psychological consequences e.g. a shortness of breath accompanied by a feeling of dread. The symptoms usually peak within a few minutes and last on average between 5-20 minutes. Feelings of fear and anxiety are normal reactions to stressful situations but someone who experiences panic disorder will have these attacks when it is unnecessary for the body to react in this way.

Fast Facts!

  • Fast facts· Women are twice as likely to suffer from panic disorder as males
  • · Prevalence for panic disorder in the UK is 2%; however, as many as 10% of people experience occasional panic attacks
  • · Panic attacks are not dangerous and do not cause the body physical harm, although it is common for sufferers to believe the opposite.
  • · Fighting panic attacks usually causes them to worsen. Accepting the attack and letting it pass generally makes it pass more quickly.

What causes it?

What causes it?


The exact cause of panic disorder is not yet fully understood however it is thought to be a combination of physical and psychological factors. Panic attacks can often occur for the first time after traumatic life experiences which heighten anxiety. Scientists also think that people who experience panic attacks may do so by attributing a small, harmless, physical symptom to something much more worrying which then triggers a bodily response.

Genetic factors also seem to play a part in causing panic disorder as it is more likely to develop if a family member also suffers. The exact genetic component is unknown but some believe it to be an imbalance of chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, in the body.

What are the symptoms?



Panic attacks can be extremely frightening and overwhelming as they can appear with no warning. As well as feeling extremely anxious and afraid there are several physical symptoms which can be felt by someone experiencing a panic attack. Some of these are:

  • · chest pain
  • · increasing heart rate
  • · sweating and a change in body temperature
  • · shaking
  • · feeling nauseous
  • · a numbness or tingling sensation
  • · loss of hearing
  • · feeling faint
  • · shortness of breath

In some cases, people can find the feelings so intense that they experience a sense of detachment, known as depersonalisation, where the sufferer feels as though they are observing themselves in an out-of-body experience. This can make the event seem unreal and disorientating.


Often people feel they are choking or having a heart attack and some may have an intense fear of death the first time they have a panic attack, but long time sufferers learn to attribute these feelings to their panic attacks.


Although the symptoms that occur are extremely uncomfortable, they are not dangerous.

However, these uncomfortable feelings can cause fear of the situation in which the panic attack took place. These fears can quickly become debilitating and it is therefore important that treatment is sought early.

How is it diagnosed?

How is it diagnosed?


With panic disorder, attacks are completely unpredictable (e.g. not caused by phobia) and therefore the disorder is only diagnosed if the attacks are frequent and unexpected and if this is followed by at least one month of worry about subsequent panic attacks. For panic disorder to be diagnosed, the doctor will talk to the patient about their panic attacks, where they happen, under what circumstances, how often they occur and how they are affecting their life. They may also carry out a short medical examination in order to rule out any underlying medical condition which could be causing the symptoms of panic attacks.

How is it treated?



Panic disorder is treatable but it is much more effective if treatment is given as early as possible so that full recovery can be made. If left untreated, panic disorder can make people vulnerable to other mental health conditions such as phobias.


Psychological therapy and medication are used in the treatment of panic disorder and can be used separately or together in order to achieve optimum results. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), delivered by a mental health specialist such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, is the most common psychological therapy delivered for panic disorder. It involves the therapist identifying thoughts and behaviours surrounding the patient’s panic attacks and changing these negative beliefs into realistic ones. They will also teach helpful coping strategies for dealing with the attacks, such as breathing exercises.


Antidepressants can be used to treat a number of conditions other than depression, and are commonly used for treatment of panic disorder. The most common antidepressants used for treatment are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibiters). SSRIs can take up to 4 weeks to become effective so results are not seen immediately and they also come with several common side effects including drowsiness, nausea, insomnia, loss of appetite, low sex drive, and dizziness. If SSRIs do not have their desired effect, then there are several other medications which can be provided.


There are also several methods of self-help. Concentrating on breathing slowly and deeply during a panic attack is important as breathing faster can increase feelings of panic. Practicing relaxation as part of everyday life can ease panic attacks through the use of activities such as mindfulness and yoga. Taking regular exercise is also important to reduce stress levels. A balanced diet should be maintained, avoiding sugary food and drinks, caffeine, alcohol and smoking, as these all contribute to panic attacks and general anxiety levels.