Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are common symptoms of anxiety and mood disorders

Desperate lady suffering anxiety attack at subway station, feeling helpless
Motortion / Getty Images

Panic attacks are the most common symptom associated with the diagnosis of panic disorder. However, they can occur with a variety of anxiety and mood disorders, as well as other medical conditions. Panic attacks can also happen in response to specific events or stressful situations.

What Is It Like to Have a Panic Attack?

A panic attack can be described as an intense feeling of fear or extreme nervousness that is brought on abruptly. Typically, these feelings of terror and apprehension occur without warning and are disproportionate to any actual threat or danger.

Panic attacks often last for a brief duration. However, the effects of a panic attack can linger for several hours following the initial attack.

Panic attacks involve a combination of emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms. For example, when experiencing a panic attack, a person may feel embarrassed or distraught over their symptoms. A variety of somatic symptoms can occur, including sweating, shaking, and chest pain.

The person may fear that they might lose control of their body or mind. Overall, these symptoms can lead to feelings of terror, causing the person to want to escape from their situation.

How Can a Doctor Diagnose My Panic Attacks?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) lists a set of distinct criteria for panic attacks. According to the DSM, a panic attack involves a sudden fear accompanied by four or more of the following symptoms.

Panic Attack Symptoms

  • Chest pain
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Derealization or depersonalization
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feeling of choking
  • Feelings of numbness or tingling sensations
  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or shaking

Your doctor will also want to rule out the possibility of any separate medical conditions or related and co-occurring conditions.

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions and affect women at about twice the rate of men. Because of this, experts recommend that women and girls over the age of 13 should be routinely screened for anxiety. Panic attacks and anxiety can become worse over time, so earlier interventions are important for improving health and well-being.

Are All Panic Attacks the Same?

Not all panic attacks are experienced in the same way. The following describes one way panic attacks are categorized:

  • Unexpected (un-cued) panic attacks: These attacks occur suddenly without any internal or external cues.
  • Expected (cued) panic attacks: These attacks occur when a person is subjected to or is anticipating a particular trigger. For example, a person with a fear of heights may have a panic attack when inside of a tall building.
  • Situational predisposed panic attacks: These attacks are similar to cued panic attacks, but do not always occur after subjection to a feared situation. These attacks also don’t always occur at the time the person is exposed to the trigger. For instance, a person who has a fear of flying may not always have a panic attack while on a plane or may have one after being on a flight for several hours.
Uncued
  • Unexpected panic attack that occurs "out of the blue"

Cued
  • Panic attack after exposure to trigger (frightening thought or experience)

If I Have Panic Attacks, Does That Mean I Have Panic Disorder?

Having panic attacks does not necessarily mean that a person has panic disorder. People who have panic disorder experience recurring and unexpected panic attacks, but panic attacks are also common among other anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder (SAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and specific phobias.

Are Panic Attacks Treatable?

Panic attacks are a treatable symptom. Typically, treatment options will be geared toward the underlying cause and may involve a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Medications prescribed for symptoms of panic attacks include benzodiazepines, a type of anti-anxiety medication that can provide rapid relief for panic symptoms and antidepressants that over time decrease the frequency and intensity of panic symptoms. Psychotherapy can help you explore your fears and learn to manage your frightening physical sensations.

There are also numerous self-help strategies for getting through a panic attack. Some of the more common techniques include:

If you are experiencing panic attacks, it is important that you seek professional help. The sooner you are treated, the more likely you will be able to get some relief and begin to manage your panic attacks.

If you or a loved one are struggling with panic attacks or other anxiety symptoms, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed, 2013. 

  2. Gregory KD, Chelmow D, Nelson HD, et al. Screening for anxiety in adolescent and adult women: A recommendation from the Women's Preventive Services Initiative. Ann Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.7326/M20-0580

  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. Updated July 2018.