Panic attacks are sudden, intense feelings of fear that cause physical symptoms like a racing heart, fast breathing and sweating. Some people who experience panic attacks develop panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder. Therapy and medications can treat panic attacks and panic disorder.
A panic attack causes sudden, temporary feelings of fear and strong physical reactions in response to ordinary, nonthreatening situations. When you’re having a panic attack, you may sweat a lot, have difficulty breathing and feel like your heart’s racing. It may feel like you’re having a heart attack.
Panic attacks are the main feature of panic disorder. But they can happen alongside other conditions, such as:
While panic attacks by themselves aren’t dangerous or harmful to your health, frequent attacks can lead to a decrease in your quality of life and other issues.
The main difference is that certain stressors often trigger anxiety attacks, and they may build up gradually. In contrast, panic attacks typically happen unexpectedly and suddenly.
Anxiety often causes physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knots in your stomach. But these symptoms are generally less intense and last longer than a panic attack, which has very intense but brief symptoms.
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that involves multiple unexpected panic attacks. A main feature of panic disorder is that the attacks usually happen without warning and aren’t due to another mental health or physical condition. There’s often not a specific trigger for them.
Not everyone who experiences a panic attack develops panic disorder.
Panic attacks are common. Every year, up to 11% of people in the United States experience a panic attack.
Approximately 2% to 3% of people in the U.S. have panic disorder. People assigned female at birth (AFAB) are two times more likely to have panic disorder than people assigned male at birth (AMAB).
A panic attack happens suddenly. Symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes after it starts and then disappear soon after. Physical symptoms of a panic attack include:
You may feel:
Panic attacks are very unpleasant and can be frightening. If you’ve had symptoms of a panic attack, it’s important to see a healthcare provider. They can give you an official diagnosis and ensure there’s no underlying physical cause.
Panic attacks usually last 5 to 20 minutes. But some people have reported attacks lasting up to an hour.
Experts don’t know exactly why some people experience panic attacks or develop panic disorder. Your brain and nervous system play key roles in how you perceive and handle fear and anxiety. Researchers think that dysfunction of your amygdala — the part of your brain that processes fear and other emotions — may be at the root of these conditions. They also think chemical imbalances in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), cortisol and serotonin may play a large role.
Your risk of having panic disorder increases if you have:
There’s often no specific trigger for panic attacks. But people who have a phobia can experience phobia-related triggers that lead to a panic attack. For example, someone with trypanophobia (intense fear of needles) may experience a panic attack if they have to get their blood drawn for a medical test. For some people, the fear of having a panic attack is often enough to trigger one.
It’s important to note that one of the criteria for panic disorder is that the panic attacks don’t have a known trigger.
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history. They may run tests to rule out medical conditions that cause similar symptoms as panic attacks, such as heart disease, thyroid disease and respiratory (breathing) problems.
If there’s no underlying physical cause, your provider may make a diagnosis according to your symptoms and risk factors.
Medical or mental health providers can diagnose panic disorder based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Your provider may diagnose panic disorder when you have repeated, unexpected panic attacks as well as one month or more of:
In addition, the attacks can’t be due to the direct effects of a substance or general medical condition. And they can’t be better accounted for by another mental health condition, like a phobia or PTSD.
Psychotherapy, medications or a combination of both are very effective in treating panic attacks and panic disorder. How long you’ll need treatment depends on the severity of the condition and how well you respond to treatment.
Psychotherapy (talk therapy) is a term for a variety of treatment techniques that aim to help a person identify and change unhealthy emotions, thoughts and behaviors.
Specific types of psychotherapy that can help with panic attacks and panic disorder include:
Medications that can help treat panic attacks and panic disorder include:
Your healthcare provider can help you identify triggers that bring on panic attacks. During psychotherapy, you learn strategies to manage triggering events and prevent an attack. You can also take these actions to lower your risk of having a panic attack:
With treatment, most people who experience panic attacks or have panic disorder get better.
Without treatment, people with panic disorder have a higher risk of suicidal ideation. It may also decrease your quality of life due to impaired social functioning.
While there’s no way to immediately stop a panic attack right after it starts, there are steps you can take to manage the symptoms until the attack resolves, including:
It’s important to seek medical treatment, like medication and psychotherapy, if you’re having frequent panic attacks.
If someone you know is having a panic attack, you can do the following to help them:
Some panic attacks have signs that can resemble a physical problem, like a heart attack. If you have chest pain, trouble breathing or lose consciousness, seek emergency medical care.
You should call your healthcare provider if you have panic attacks and experience:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Panic attacks can be extremely uncomfortable. Although they’re not physically harmful, they can take a toll on your mental health and stop you from doing the things you love. Don’t be embarrassed to tell your healthcare provider that you have panic attacks. Your provider can help you overcome fears and anxieties that trigger attacks. They can recommend treatments like psychotherapy and medications to treat the attacks.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/12/2023.
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