Panic disorder 

Introduction 

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

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

Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety and panic at certain times during their lifetime. It is a perfectly natural response, particularly when you are in a dangerous or stressful situation. However, for people with panic disorder, feelings of anxiety, stress and panic occur regularly and at any time.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling of unease. The feeling of unease can range from mild to severe, and can include feelings of worry and fear.
 
There are several different conditions that can cause severe anxiety. They include:

  • phobias: an extreme or irrational fear of an animal, object, place or situation
  • 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 that has psychological and physical symptoms and is caused by very frightening or distressing events

Panic attacks

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

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

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

The number of panic attacks that you have will depend on the severity of your condition. 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 are not dangerous. A panic attack will not cause you any physical harm and it is unlikely that you will be admitted to hospital if you have had a panic attack.

What to do

If you have symptoms of anxiety or panic disorder, see your GP. A diagnosis of panic disorder will be made if you experience recurrent and unexpected panic attacks that are followed by at least one month of continuous worry or concern about having further attacks.

Read more about the diagnosis of panic disorder.

How common is panic disorder?

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

In the UK, approximately one person in 100 has panic disorder. Most people first develop the disorder when they are in their twenties. The condition is approximately twice as common in women as it is in men.

What causes it?

As with many mental health conditions, the exact cause of panic disorder is not fully understood. It is thought that panic disorder is probably caused by a combination of physical and psychological factors.

Read about the possible causes of panic disorder.

How is it treated?

The main aim of treatment for panic disorder is to reduce the number of panic attacks that you have and to help ease the severity of your symptoms. The two main types of treatment for panic disorder are psychological therapy and medication.

Find out more about the treatment of panic disorder and what you can do to help yourself during a panic attack.

If you have panic disorder, it may affect your ability to drive. It is 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. The Directgov website provides information about how to tell the DVLA about a medical condition.

Page last reviewed: 21/04/2012

Next review due: 21/04/2014

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Comments

The 9 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Alie80 said on 23 February 2014

I am in my 30's and usually lead a normal happy but busy life.. Recently I went abroad and suffered really badly with anxiousness and what I would describe as a panic attack. I couldn't sleep through worry and my heart was racing leading me to panic that it was about to stop beating altogether! It was horrible and really frightening..

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marytes said on 16 January 2014

I have had a lot of panic attacks, with all the symptoms sweats racing heart feeling sick tingling hands and feet. Have had all the tests ECG, blood test everything normal. It all started while I am going through the menopause. Starts with a flush which causes palpatations then I get stressed and the heart beats faster and its a catch 22. Have tried all the things deep breathing, trying to relax easier said than done when you think you are going to die. Especially as in the last three months have lost two really close friends with a heart attack. I have had numerous tests ECG, bloods, examination from top to toe. Kept in the hospital for six hours all to no avail, that is till the next time I have one. Might try and get antidepressant to see if they help me. Any advice please....

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brentmdwhite said on 13 July 2013

Hi I have had repeated panic attacks after my brother had a motor bike accident 7 years ago went through this for about a year my now wife helped me every step of the way. Now they have come back this time more severe I had one 2 week's ago I haven't eaten or slept since properly, my wife works away for 3 days at a time and I can only explain this feeling as hell. I'm trying not to let it affect my kids but I can't stop bursting into tears my heart won't slow down I'm scared and I don't know why. It's no where near as bad when my wife is here but I'm leaning on her to much and its causing problems I have to get this sorted now!! Great video has actually helped me because I feel like there may be a way out I just have to get through the day first!! Sorry to bore its helped writing it down

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Elliemae1993 said on 19 June 2013

I am 20 years old and I've had a pain attack before when I was about 17 since then I just though it was a one off thing. But this past week has been horrible :( I have had horrible thoughts and my mind won't stop going through loads of bad memories and I stress and panic and can't cope with them, ive hada bad child hood and went through domestic violence last year with an ex boyfriend. I havn't been able to sleep and woke up at 4:30am crying and panicking then I had a panic attack, I had my boyfriend with me and he's really understanding. I have worries and stress everyday now and I feel like I can't deal with them and I'm scared. I thought I was going crazy until I read this :) I have the doctors tomorrow to discuss it all. Im quite nervous but I must want to tackle this once and for all and I will do anything it takes. Thankuoi for helping me understand :)

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martin1970 said on 03 June 2013

Hi
on and off for many years I have suffered with low moods and stress - maybe like many people , but more recently ive been having cbt for bereavement and sleep problems, but very recently I have suffered a number of severe panic attacks which my gp knows to his knowledge I have never had before , these have been quite frightening and like I say alien to me, these episodes will not be related to any of my other prior condition surely and are a separate issue?

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luvurself said on 15 April 2013

@Angelast !! I totally agree that misdiagnose is worse. Identification of root cause is essential. I have been running for help for almost 2 years now, going through CBT it helped in specifying physio-psychological behaviors but does not define whether it is mood disorder, chronic stress/ anxiety/depression or just another stressful life phase. I personally think it helps if I look into my psychopathology because I ignored it in my late teens considering must be with tough exams and other life related stress.

And I also do wonder and worry how many would be out there with almost no awareness, misdiagnose and how much it would be effecting their own life and people around them.

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angelast said on 25 January 2013

I was misdiagnosed with panic disorder and general anxiety disorder 7 years ago. I had all the symptoms bit could not find any causes or mental triggers. I noticed I usually had worse racing heart style attacks when it was hot or I stood up. I had to many symptoms to list, some constant, some transient, some variable, some recurring, some extremely bizarre. They included visual disturbances, difficulty focusing eyes, double vision, fatigue, paradthesias, extreme panic attacks, nervousness, tremors, difficulty swallowing, sweating, hot flashes, uncontrollable hyperventilating, palpitations, very fast heart rate when stood up, extremely variable bp and hr, ice cold extremities... and more, the doctors had me convinced for 7 years I was a hypochondriac and all symptoms were from anxiety/depression.

By accident I came across online article about dysautomnia & a manifestation called pots where the body can't relate its hr/bp properly, and after showing a new Dr I have been dxd with this and autonomic neuropathy and am now starting medicine - not antidepressants anymore.

If I hadn't found out myself I know Dr would never have tested/referred me and Id never get treatment. They passed me round in circles through mental health teams, never considered once it could be physical despite psychiatrists not finding a serious problem. And simply, if all my symptoms were in my head I must have had psychosis!

I worry other young women like me will just believe the doctors and never be able to find out why they are ill and will think they are mad or give up hope getting better, I nearly did, sheer luck brought it to my attention.
So though it could be quite rare, if you've been searching for years for a mystery illness everyone tells you is in your head affecting your heart rate/circulation and nervous system - ESP if you get worse symptoms on standing our if you've been stood up too long, just look into it, just incase.

No-one else wil look into it for you.

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derekn7 said on 16 September 2012

Panic disorders and anxiety can also be caused bu allergies, i suffered from panic and anxiety only to find out it was from damp in my house, animals also cause the same symptoms. If you have panic attacks or anxiety look for allergy causing things that you use or are exposed to on a daily basis and you will find the cure. As with most illness a cure can be found in your lifestyle choices.

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panicfreesteps said on 03 March 2012

I had panic attacks and related conditions for 29 years from the age of 11 years old. Life opportunities were cut off, my life was very poor and I was branded as having a mental health condition all that time.

I have now completely cured all my conditions after removing chemicals from food and drinks in my daily diet and have proved this scientifically that these chemicals give you panic attacks and anxiety.

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