Introduction 

Panic disorder is where you have recurring and regular panic attacks, often for no apparent reason.

Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety and panic at certain times during their lifetime. It's a natural response to stressful or dangerous situations.

However, for someone with panic disorder, feelings of anxiety, stress and panic occur regularly and at any time.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling of unease. It can range from mild to severe and can include feelings of worry and fear.
 
There are several conditions that can cause severe anxiety including

  • phobias – an extreme or irrational fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal
  • generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – a long-term condition that causes excessive anxiety and worry relating to a variety of situations
  • post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition with psychological and physical symptoms caused by distressing or frightening events

Panic attacks

A panic attack occurs when your body experiences a rush of intense psychological (mental) and physical symptoms.

You may experience an overwhelming sense of fear, apprehension and anxiety. As well as these feelings, you may also have physical symptoms such as:

  • nausea
  • sweating
  • trembling
  • a sensation that your heart is beating irregularly (palpitations)

The number of panic attacks you have will depend on how severe your condition is. Some people may have one or two attacks each month, while others may have several attacks a week.

Read more about the symptoms of panic disorder.

Panic attacks can be very frightening and intense, but they're not dangerous. An attack won't cause you any physical harm, and it's unlikely that you'll be admitted to hospital if you've had a panic attack.

What causes panic disorder?

As with many mental health conditions, the exact cause of panic disorder isn't fully understood.

However, it's thought the condition is probably linked to a combination of physical and psychological factors.

Read about the possible causes of panic disorder.

It’s important to be aware that some physical conditions and disorders can have similar symptoms to those of anxiety. For example:

  • mitral valve prolapse
  • postural orthostatic tachycardic syndrome (POTS)
  • anaemia
  • paroxysmal atrial tachycardia – episodes of rapid and regular heartbeats that begin and end abruptly
  • thyrotoxicosis – where large amounts of thyroid hormones are released into the bloodstream, causing rapid heartbeat, sweating, tremor and anxiety
  • poorly controlled diabetes
  • adrenal tumours – growths that develop on the adrenal glands (two triangular-shaped glands that form part of the kidneys)
  • carcinoid syndrome – a set of symptoms caused by some carcinoid tumours that can develop in the cells of the endocrine system (glands that produce and secrete hormones)
  • Zollinger-Ellison syndrome – causes overproduction of insulin and low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia)

Diagnosing panic disorder

See your GP if you have symptoms of anxiety or panic disorder (see above).

You may be diagnosed with panic disorder if you experience recurrent and unexpected panic attacks followed by at least one month of continuous worry or concern about having further attacks.

Read more about how panic disorder is diagnosed.

Treating panic disorder

The aim of treating panic disorder is to reduce the number of panic attacks you have and ease the severity of your symptoms.

Psychological therapy and medication are the two main types of treatment for panic disorder.

Read more about treating panic disorder and things you can do to help yourself during a panic attack.

Having panic disorder may affect your ability to drive. It's your legal obligation to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) about a medical condition that could have an impact on your driving ability.

GOV.UK has further information and advice about driving with a disability or health condition.

Complications of panic disorder

Panic disorder is treatable, but to make a full recovery it's important that you seek medical help as soon as possible. Treatment for panic disorder is much more effective if it's given at an early stage.

Left untreated, panic disorder can become a very debilitating and isolating illness. It can also increase your risk of developing other mental health conditions, such as agoraphobia or other phobias.

Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult, or help wouldn't be available if things go wrong.

Read more about the complications of panic disorder.




Panic disorder

A clinical psychologist describes the symptoms of panic disorder, the treatments available, and what to do if someone you know has a panic attack.

Media last reviewed: 07/05/2013

Next review due: 07/05/2015

How common is panic disorder?

At least one in 10 people experience occasional panic attacks, which are usually triggered by a stressful event.

Panic disorder is where a person has recurring and regular panic attacks. In the UK, it affects about two in 100 people, and it's about twice as common in women as it is in men.

Dealing with panic attacks

Anxious? Dizzy? Confused? You could be experiencing a panic attack. Read about the symptoms and get practical tips on how to cope with a panic attack

Page last reviewed: 15/08/2014

Next review due: 15/08/2016