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What Is Panic Disorder: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 6/5/2022

If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you know how terrifying it can feel. It’s an experience you’ll likely try to avoid at all costs. Panic disorder stems from intense fear. But unlike a one-off or occasional panic attack, people with panic disorder experience panic attacks without clear triggers. 

Unfortunately, panic disorder is a reality for many of us. In fact, seven percent of women and over three percent of men have panic disorders and know this uncontrollable panic all too well. 

However, thanks to modern age medicine and psychology, more than one treatment plan route is effective. 

Learn more about the physical symptoms of, the persistent concern regarding and treatment for panic disorder below. 

What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is when you have unexpected panic attacks that occur with other panic attack symptoms, such as sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, fear of dying, numbness, feeling faint, etc. 

Panic disorder causes such a constant fear that you begin to modify your behavior to avoid having another panic attack. 

Panic disorder can be debilitating, draining and frightening for anyone experiencing it, and can impact your quality of life. 

What Are the Common Causes of Panic Disorder?

In the past, panic disorder was often looped in with general anxiety disorder (GAD). Although panic disorder does have some similarities with general anxiety disorder, it was ultimately determined to be its own disorder, given that it has different symptoms, causes and treatment, depending on each case. 

Scientists don’t know for sure all the exact causes of panic disorder. However, they have found a couple common factors that may put someone at higher risk of panic disorder. These include previous mental health issues, trauma, family discord and seizures. 

Struggles with Mental Health in the Past  

The chances of having panic as an adult are greater if you had it as a child. 

While other mental health illnesses like depression, addiction or a major grief episode may also influence it. 

Family Strife 

While researchers still aren’t 100 percent certain regarding the relationship between family relationships and panic disorder, there does appear to be a strong correlation between the two.

In one study, for instance, using attachment theory and different statements from those experiencing panic disorder, researchers found that those with panic disorder were more likely to have a more strained or unloving relationship with their father than those not experiencing panic disorder. 

Trauma 

Although many factors can contribute to panic disorder, data from one study showed that those who experienced severe traumatic events like violence, sexual abuse or the loss of a parent during childhood may be more likely to have panic disorder. 

Seizures 

Seizures and a history of shortness of breath or cardiac symptoms are strongly associated with panic disorder.

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What Are the Symptoms of Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder consists of symptoms of physical sensation during the panic attack, symptoms of continued fear after the attack and impact on quality of life. 

All of these symptoms can be particularly scary or challenging to experience. 

Symptoms during a panic attack may include:

  • Pounding heart

  • Sweating

  • Shaking

  • Shortness of breath 

  • Feeling like you’re choking

  • Feeling dizzy

  • Chest pain

  • Chills 

  • Numbness

  • Dissociation (or not feeling like your yourself) 

  • Fear of going crazy

  • Fear of dying 

In addition to these types of symptoms, it’s typical to either start avoiding specific places or creating behavior that you think will avoid a panic attack, or feeling overwhelming fear of future panic attacks. 

Examples include:

  • Fear of having a heart attack

  • Fear of going crazy 

  • Fear of losing “it”

  • Avoid all unfamiliar locations

  • Avoid specific activity or location 

Ultimately, the combination of these symptoms makes it difficult to navigate through daily life. 

How Is Panic Disorder Diagnosed?

Mental health professionals will first ensure your panic attacks aren’t happening because of something else, like a medical condition. 

After they rule out other conditions, the criteria of panic disorder is based on the presence of the attack itself, the frequency of panic attacks and then at least four of the symptoms listed above. 

Some mental health professionals will look to the DSM guide or a type of severity scale to help determine whether a patient has panic disorder. 

Other Mental Disorders That Experience Panic Attacks 

The diagnosis of panic disorder is specific, and panic attacks are one of the main symptoms considered for a diagnosis. However, as we mentioned, other symptoms — like persistent fear — must accompany it. 

That said, other mental disorders may experience panic attacks as a symptom. They include: 

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that results after a traumatic event. 

If you have PTSD, it’s common to re-experience this traumatic memory over and over. For some with PTSD, specific traumatic triggers may cause a panic attack. 

The main difference between panic disorder and PTSD is that there is typically a specific panic attack trigger. 

Major Depression 

It’s also possible to experience panic attacks during a major depressive episode. 

Furthermore, according to one study, those with depression that experience panic attacks typically have more severe depression

What Are the Treatment Options for Panic Disorder?

Because panic disorder can be difficult to diagnose and because panic attacks are symptoms of other mental health disorders — disorders that require their own specific treatment regimen — it’s crucial that your first step in treating panic disorder is meeting with a mental health care professional.

Once you know what you’re battling with, you can come up with a proper plan of attack.

With panic disorder, treatments typically combine medication and psychotherapy. Treatment options will vary based on what you and your mental health care provider determine is best. 

Seeking treatment for panic disorder with medication, therapy or a combination of both can be effective options in decreasing panic disorder symptoms. 

Medication

The most popular medication choice for panic disorder are antidepressants, with the first-line antidepressant being selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). 

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCA) are a second choice, as they’ve proven effective in the treatment of panic disorder, but also offer a more robust and potentially severe side effects profile.

Popular SSRIs for treating panic disorder include escitalopram, fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, paroxetine and sertraline

Your psychiatrist or mental health professional can help you determine an antidepressant that will work for panic disorder specifically. 

Therapy 

Psychotherapy is another first-line treatment option for panic disorder. 

Depending on what your mental health care provider and you decide, you may choose to use therapy with medication or just therapy, as both have been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of panic disorder.

Psychotherapy may include different techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy.

What About Relaxation Techniques?  

It’s important to seek help if you’re experiencing frequent panic attacks. But in addition to medication and therapy, here are a couple of things you can try to calm down in the moment. 

These shouldn’t be considered treatment in lieu of traditional treatments, but have been shown to help.

Breathing 

Try taking some long slow breaths. One study showed that slow breathing could enhance emotional control and psychological well-being in the moment.

Movement and exercise 

According to research, exercising and daily movement can help reduce anxiety overall. So, try and implement daily movement into your routine. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt.

Talking to someone

Call a friend or family member. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and talk to a mental health professional. 

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Key Takeaways: Creating Less Intense Fear of Panic Attacks 

Panic attacks are incredibly scary and can be debilitating to your day-to-day and overall mental health. 

It’s important to seek help and treatment for panic disorder to mute some of the intense fear that panic disorder sparks. 

Without treatment, individuals may live in constant fear of another panic attack and change their lives to avoid them. 

With treatment — like antidepressant medications and cognitive behavioral therapy — you can reduce some of these symptoms and create more control and less fear of panic attacks. 

Talk with a healthcare professional today if you’re concerned about panic attacks, panic disorder or other mental health concerns. 

10 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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