A panic disorder is characterized by sudden, recurring attacks of fear or panic.
At certain times, everyone experiences feelings of panic. It is a normal reaction to dangerous or stressful situations.
People with panic disorder experience anxiety, stress, and panic at any given time and for no apparent reasons.
Panic disorder symptoms
Anxiety is the feeling of being uneasy. It can be mild or severe and include feelings of fear and worry. Panic is the worst form of anxiety.
You might start to avoid certain situations, as you’re afraid they will trigger another attack.
It can lead to a vicious cycle of “fear of fear”. This can increase your panic and cause more attacks.
You will experience a sudden rush of mental and physical symptoms. The symptoms can appear suddenly and without apparent cause.
An anxiety attack can be frightening and distressing.
- a racing heartbeat
- feeling faint
- chest pain
- Shortness of Breath
- Hot flushes
- Shaky limbs
- a choking sensation
- Pins and Needles
- dry Mouth
- Need to use the toilet
- Ringing in the ears
- Fear of death or a sense of dread
- a churning stomach
- A tingling sensation in your fingertips
- Feeling disconnected from your body
Most panic attacks last 5 to 20 minutes. Some panic attacks have lasted up to one hour.
How severe your condition will determine how many attacks you experience. Some people experience attacks only once or twice per month while others suffer them multiple times per week.
While panic attacks can be frightening, they are not dangerous. You will not be physically hurt by an attack, and you are unlikely to be admitted to the hospital.
It may not be experiencing a panic disorder.
You may experience a racing pulse if your blood pressure is very low.
Get help when you need it
Consult your GP if panic disorder symptoms are present.
You’ll be asked to describe the symptoms you are experiencing, including how frequently you experience them and for how long.
The doctor may also perform a physical exam to rule out any other conditions that might be causing the symptoms.
Try not to be embarrassed or anxious when you talk about your emotions, feelings and personal life.
If you experience frequent and unexpected panic attacks, followed by a continuous period of worry about future attacks for at least one month, then you may have panic disorder.
Treatment for panic disorder
The treatment aims to decrease the number of panic episodes you experience and reduce your symptoms.
The main treatment for panic disorder is talking therapies as well as medicine. The treatment you receive will be based on your symptoms.
You can also refer yourself to a service that offers talking therapies based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Find a service that offers talking therapies (only in England)
You can also consult a GP who can make a referral.
Your therapist will discuss with you what you do and think when you experience a panic disorder.
You can learn how to change your behavior and remain calm in the face of an attack.
Your GP may want to monitor your progress by seeing you regularly during CBT.
You may be prescribed this medication if you and your physician think it could be beneficial.
- A type of antidepressant known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), or, if SSRIs do not suit, a tricyclic (usually imipramine, clomipramine).
- If your anxiety is severe you may need to take clonazepam. These medicines can also be used for anxiety.
Antidepressants may take up to eight weeks to fully work.
Even if they don’t seem to be working, keep taking your medications. Only stop taking them if the doctor tells you so.
Referral to a specialist
If you do not see improvement in your symptoms after CBT, medication and joining a support group your GP might refer you to an expert such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.
The specialist will assess your symptoms and create a plan of treatment to help you manage them.
Video: Talking therapy for anxiety, depression and stress
Video explaining how to self-refer to talk therapy services for depression, stress or anxiety.
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Media last reviewed: 14 March 2022
Media Review due: 14th March 2025
Try these things yourself
What to do when you have a panic attacks
Next time you start to feel a panic attack approaching:
- Do not fight it
- If possible, stay in your current location
- Breathe slowly and deeply
- Remember that the attack will pass
- Focus on peaceful, positive and relaxing images
- Remember it’s not a life-threatening situation
Preventing another attack
You may find it helpful to:
- Ask your GP for a book on anxiety based upon the principles of cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT).
- Relax by using complementary therapies, such as massage, aromatherapy or yoga and pilates.
- Learn breathing exercises for relief.
- Exercise regularly in order to reduce tension and stress
- Avoid sugary foods and drinks, caffeine, alcohol, and quit smoking as they all can make an attack worse
Read for more information on how to handle panic attacks.
Support is available for those who have panic disorder. You can find support by talking to others who have the same problem or by contacting a charity.
The following links may be useful to you:
- depression UK
- Understanding anxiety and panic attacks
- No Panic
- Triumph Over Phobia
Consult your doctor about local support groups for people with panic disorder.
Find local anxiety services
Complications of Panic Disorder
You can recover from panic disorder. It’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Without medical treatment, panic disorder may worsen and be very difficult to manage.
You are more likely to develop other mental conditions such as agoraphobia, other fears or alcohol or drug problems.
Driving while suffering from panic disorder can be dangerous. You must inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of any medical condition that may affect your ability to drive.
Visit GOV.UK to learn more about Driving with a Disability or Health Condition.
The exact cause of panic disorder, as with other mental illnesses, is still not known.
It’s believed to be caused by a combination of factors, including
- A traumatic life event, such as a bereavement
- A close family member suffering from panic disorder
- An imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain
Panic disorder in Children
Teenagers are more likely to suffer from panic disorder than younger children.
Children and teenagers can find it difficult to cope with panic attacks. Severe panic disorder can affect the development and learning of children.
If your child is showing signs and symptoms of panic disorders, you should take them to a GP.
The GP will then perform a physical examination in order to eliminate any physical causes of the symptoms.
The specialist may recommend that your child receive CBT. The specialist may suggest a course of CBT to your child.
Your child may need to be screened for other anxiety disorders.