Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by reoccurring unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, numbness, or a feeling that something terrible is going to happen.

The lifetime prevelance of panic disorder is about 2.5%. It usually begins during adolescence or early adulthood but any age can be affected. Although, it is less common in children and older people. Women are more often affected than men.

Signs and Symptoms:

Common symptoms of an attack include rapid heartbeat, perspiration, dizziness, dyspnea, trembling, uncontrollable fear and hyperventilation.

Other symptoms are a sensation of choking, paralysis, chest pain, nausea, numbness or tingling, chills or hot flashes, faintness, crying and some sense of altered reality.

Most panic attacks last for between 5 and 20 minutes. Some panic attacks have been reported to last up to an hour.

Biological Explanations:

Past research concluded that there is irregular norepinephrine activity in people who have panic attacks.[ Current research also supports this perspective as it has been found that those with panic disorder also have a brain circuit that performs improperly. This circuit consists of the amygdala, central gray matter, ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus, and the locus ceruleus. Panic disorder has also been found to run in families, which suggests that inheritance plays a strong role in determining who will get it.

Psychological Explanations:

Psychological factors, stressful life events, life transitions, and environment as well as often thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily reactions are also believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. Often the first attacks are triggered by physical illnesses, major stress, or certain medications. People who tend to take on excessive responsibilities may develop a tendency to suffer panic attacks. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients also show a much higher rate of panic disorder than the general population.


CBT and one tested form of psychodynamic psychotherapy have been shown efficacious in treating panic disorder with and without agoraphobia. A number of randomized clinical trials have shown that CBT achieves reported panic-free status in 70–90% of patients about 2 years after treatment.

Clinically, a combination of psychotherapy and medication can often produce good results, although research evidence of this approach has been less robust. Some improvement may be noticed in a fairly short period of time, about 6 to 8 weeks. Psychotherapy can improve the effectiveness of medication, reduce the likelihood of relapse for someone who has discontinued medication, and offer help for people with panic disorder who do not respond at all to medication.

The goal of cognitive behavior therapy is to help a patient reorganize thinking processes and anxious thoughts regarding an experience that provokes panic. An approach that proved successful for 87% of patients in a controlled trial is interoceptive therapy, which simulates the symptoms of panic to allow patients to experience them in a controlled environment.

15 thoughts on “What is Panic Disorder?

  1. Thanks! This was very helpful. Could you please do a post on PTSD and coping with it? I have it and would love to see your work on that. Good luck with the blog! Regards

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I always wondered why I started having panic attacks suddenly at age 19 and I found out it’s common age range for the onset of the disorder. I have dealt with very immense stress especially during my childhood, and even though I had extremely bad anxiety all throughout that time, the panic attacks didn’t start till 19. CBT has helped me deal with the associated anxious thoughts that keep the panic going such as “I’m dying” etc and mindfulness has helped to ground me when it happens. The combination of therapy and meds has been very helpful for me, though I still have them sometimes

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  3. Of course, “mental illness” is complex and many things contribute. Among other things, I worry that our culture has become very superficial and simplistic. Fiction often sets expectations of quick and violent solutions to complex problems. Even the “heroes” of fiction seldom “think things through” but instead rush off on some half-baked scheme that wins basically via luck.

    I was a licensed psychologist in New York State. Now, I am writing fiction that I hope is immersive but that also models “adult” ways of thinking and being; e.g., empathy, alternatives thinking, consequences thinking, and self-reflection. Here’s an example where a youngster torn from his family uses his cultural heritage to help him cope.


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