What is panic disorder?

Fear and anxiety (intense nervousness) are normal reactions to stressful events in our lives. Panic disorder, however, is different. Panic disorder is a serious condition that strikes without reason, causing sudden attacks of fear and anxiety, as well as physical symptoms such as sweating and a racing heart.

When a person suffers from panic disorder, these attacks—called panic attacks—continue to occur without warning. Over time, the person develops a constant fear of having another attack, which can affect daily functioning and general quality of life. Panic disorder often occurs along with other serious conditions, such as depression, alcoholism or drug abuse.

How common is panic disorder?

Panic disorder affects 2-3% of adult Americans. Panic disorder most often begins during late adolescence and early adulthood. It is twice as common in women than in men.

What causes panic disorder?

Although the exact cause of panic disorder is not fully understood, studies have shown that a combination of factors, including biology and environmental stresses, might be involved. These factors include the following:

  • Family history: Panic disorder has been shown to run in families. It might be passed on to some people by one or both of parents, like hair or eye color.
  • Biological malfunction: Panic disorder might be caused by problems in parts of the brain and nervous system.
  • Substance abuse: Abuse of drugs and alcohol can contribute to panic disorder.
  • Major life stress: Stressful events and major life transitions, such as graduation from school or the death of a loved one, can trigger a panic disorder.

What are the symptoms of panic disorder?

People with panic disorder have repeated panic attacks. A panic attack is a period of intense fear that occurs in response to ordinary situations. During a panic attack, the fear response is out of proportion for the situation, which often is non-threatening. Panic attacks occur suddenly and without warning, and cannot be stopped. They can occur at any time and generally do not last long, usually reaching their peak of intensity within 10 minutes of onset.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pounding heart or chest pain
  • Intense feeling of terror
  • Sensation of choking or smothering
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or stomachache
  • Tingling or numbness in the fingers and toes
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • A fear that you are losing control or are about to die

Beyond the panic attacks themselves, a key symptom of panic disorder is the persistent fear of having future panic attacks. The fear of these attacks can cause the person to avoid places and situations where an attack has occurred or where they believe an attack might occur.