What Is Panic Disorder?


A panic attack can happen anywhere, at any time. You may feel terrified and overwhelmed, even though you’re not in any danger.

If this kind of random event has happened to you at least twice, and you constantly worry and change your routine to keep from having one, you might have panic disorder -- a type of anxiety disorder.

One in 10 adults in the U.S. have panic attacks each year. About a third of people have one in their lifetime. But most of them don’t have panic disorder. Only about 3% of adults have it, and it’s more common in women than in men.


A panic attack is a sudden strong feeling of fear. You’ll have four or more of these signs:

  • Pounding or fast heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered
  • A choking feeling
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea or stomach pains
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Numbness or tingling in the body
  • Feeling unreal or detached
  • A fear of losing control or going crazy
  • A fear of dying

An attack usually passes in 5-10 minutes, but it can linger for hours. It can feel like you’re having a heart attack or a stroke. So people with panic attacks often wind up in the emergency room for evaluation.

If left untreated, panic disorder can sometimes lead to agoraphobia, an intense fear of being outside or in enclosed spaces.


Doctors don’t know exactly what causes panic disorder. Researchers have found that it can run in families, but they’re not sure how much of that is because of your genes or the environment you grew up in. People with panic disorder may have brains that are especially sensitive in responding to fear.

Turning to drugs or alcohol to try to deal with panic disorder in turn can make the symptoms worse.

People with this disorder often also have major depression. But there is no evidence that one condition causes the other.


There isn't a lab test specifically for panic disorder. Your doctor probably will examine you and rule out other health issues. If you’ve had two or more random panic attacks and live in fear of a repeat episode, you likely have panic disorder.



You doctor may refer you to a psychotherapist. She may recommend a type of effective talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy. With it, you can learn how to change unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that bring on panic attacks.

She may also prescribe antidepressant or oral anti-anxiety medications. You can take some antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications for years if necessary. Some anti-anxiety medications can work better in the short term.

Lifestyle changes -- such as cutting back on caffeine, exercising, limiting alcohol, and deep breathing exercises -- also may help.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on November 13, 2019



MedlinePlus: “Panic Disorder.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms.”

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Panic Disorder.”

American Psychiatric Association: “What Are Anxiety Disorders?”

The BMJ: “Panic Disorder.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness: “Psychotherapy.”

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.

PubMed: “Functional t1ρ imaging in panic disorder.”

UpToDate: “Panic disorder in adults: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, course, assessment, and diagnosis.”

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