What does it look like?

Panic attacks are described as intense fear or discomfort in the absence of real danger. They are accompanied by physical and non-physical symptoms. Some of the symptoms include: heart pounding or rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath or smothering sensations, feeling of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or stomach discomfort, feeling dizzy or faint, fear of losing control or going crazy, and fear of dying. Panic attacks are typically unexpected. People may develop so much fear that they seek out medical help at a hospital emergency room or other urgent care.

Panic disorder is recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. People develop panic disorder when they experience persistent worry about having panic attacks. They avoid areas or situations because of their fear of panic attacks. Their behavior changes significantly because of the anxiety and worry. Panic attacks do not necessarily mean someone has panic disorder. People can experience isolated panic attacks.

Who is affected?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 6 million American adults ages 18 and older, or about 2.7 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have panic disorder.

Where does it come from?

“Certain biological factors that may be inherited or passed on through genes may lead some people to be more likely to panic. Many believe that what is inherited are overly sensitive parts of the nervous system which lead to a tendency to experience all negative emotions, including anger, sadness, guilt, and shame, as well as anxiety and panic. However, inheriting vulnerabilities to experience negative emotions does not guarantee that you will experience panic attacks or panic disorder.” (Mastery of Anxiety and Panic, David Barlow & Michelle Craske, 2007).

When does it happen?

The average age of onset for panic disorder is most common between late teens and early adulthood, but the age of onset extends throughout adulthood. It is relatively uncommon to have an onset past age 50. Panic disorder is about twice as common among women as men.

How do we treat it?

The most effective treatment is Cognitive Behavior Therapy with Exposure Therapy.