Symptoms of Panic Disorder and Attacks

Young woman with hand on chest

Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Normal panic symptoms can sometimes feel like something more serious such as a panic attack. While it can be difficult to decipher whether your panicky symptoms are "normal" under the circumstances or the result of a panic attack, there are some key differences that distinguish between the two.

Criteria for Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

Recurring panic attacks are the hallmark features of panic disorder, though a few changes have been made in the diagnosis according to the DSM-5.

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder marked by recurring and bothersome panic attacks. To meet the criteria for panic disorder, one of two behaviors are required over a period of at least one month: A continual and marked fear of having panic attacks in the future, or a shift in a person's behavior designed to avoid the attacks.

Panic attacks are the sudden and intense feelings of terror, fear, or apprehension, without the presence of actual danger.

The symptoms of a panic attack usually happen suddenly, peak within 10 minutes, and then subside. However, some attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins.

Types of Panic Attacks

There are two main types of panic attacks:

  • Unexpected: Unexpected panic attacks occur suddenly without any external or internal cues. In other words, they occur without a fearful situation or a fearful thought or feeling. They may seem to happen "out of the blue" when someone is completely relaxed.
  • Expected: Expected panic attacks occur when someone is exposed to a situation for which they carry fear. For example, someone who has a fear of flying may have a panic attack after being seated in a plane or during take-off.

Unexpected panic attacks are more common among those with panic disorder, but people may experience both types of panic.

Physical and Emotional Symptoms of Panic Attacks

According to the DSM-5, a panic attack is characterized by four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feeling of choking
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking

The presence of fewer than four of the above symptoms may be considered a limited-symptom panic attack. In order for a diagnosis of panic disorder to be made, recurring, spontaneous panic attacks must be present.

The Intensity of Panic Attack Symptoms

The symptoms of a panic attack are usually so intense they are often described by people as the worst experience of their lives. After having a panic attack, the person may continue to experience extreme anxiety for several hours. More often than not, the panic episode causes continuous worry about having another attack.

It is not unusual to be become so consumed with worry and fear that behavioral changes occur with the hope of avoiding another attack. This may lead to the development of agoraphobia, which complicates recovery and limits the person's ability to function in usual daily activities.

The Importance of Getting Treatment

The symptoms of panic disorder can be frightening and potentially disabling, but it is a treatable disorder, and most people will find significant relief with therapeutic intervention. The sooner treatment begins after the onset of panic disorder, the more quickly symptoms generally lessen or disappear.

Even those with long-term symptoms generally experience improvement with treatment, and most can resume many of the activities they once enjoyed.

The Importance of an Accurate Diagnosis

Panic disorder can both mimic and coexist with many other medical and psychological disorders, making a careful diagnosis very important. For example, just as some people fear that an erratic heartbeat during a panic disorder is a symptom of a heart problem, recurrent cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) may also be misdiagnosed as panic disorder.

Until a diagnosis of panic disorder is made, and because many of the symptoms are physical, many people have made frequent runs to the emergency room. In fact, it's been estimated that between 20% and 25% of emergency room visits for chest pain are due to panic attacks, and those who visit the emergency room more than eight times in one year are three times as likely to suffer from panic attacks than the general population.

Be sure to speak with an experienced mental health professional in order to ensure your symptoms are being accurately evaluated.

Panic Disorder Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide to help you ask the right questions at your next doctor's appointment.

Mind Doc Guide

A thorough medical history and physical exam are also needed to make sure nothing is missed and to prevent the compounding of panic attacks by adding the trauma of emergency room visits to the mix.

A Word From Verywell

Panic attacks can be literally terrifying, but help is available. Panic disorder is a very treatable condition. Unfortunately, due to the mental health stigma, and perhaps some embarrassment among those who have made multiple visits to the emergency room, the diagnosis is often delayed.

While anxiety tends to be twice as common in women as men, it often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Anxiety screenings during routine exams can be helpful for identifying possible symptoms of anxiety early on, which may result in fewer disruptions in functioning and better outcomes.

If you are experiencing symptoms of panic attacks or panic disorder, even if your symptoms do not meet the "criteria" listed above, talk openly to your doctor or contact a mental health professional. Panic disorder can affect every area of your life, but many people find that their lives feel like they are restored once they seek treatment.

If you or a loved one are struggling with panic attacks or other symptoms of anxiety, 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?
2 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. Imai H, Tajika A, Chen P, Pompoli A, Furukawa TA. Psychological therapies versus pharmacological interventions for panic disorder with or without agoraphobia in adultsCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;10(10):CD011170. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD011170.pub2

  2. Zane RD, McAfee AT, Sherburne S, Billeter G, Barsky A. Panic disorder and emergency services utilizationAcad Emerg Med. 2003;10(10):1065-1069. doi:10.1111/j.1553-2712.2003.tb00576.x