The Symptoms of Panic Disorder

woman with agoraphobia at door afraid to go outside due to panic disorder

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Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by fear and worry. One of the most salient symptoms is the experience of persistent and often unanticipated panic attacks.

Panic disorder is diagnosed as occurring with or without agoraphobia. Agoraphobia involves a fear of having one of these intense panic attacks in a place or situation where it would be very difficult or embarrassing to escape.

Here's an overview of the symptoms, features, and treatments for panic disorder.

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are typically experienced through a combination of frightening physical sensations and distressing thoughts and emotions. These attacks bring on severe apprehension and discomfort, despite a lack of actual threat or danger.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) is the handbook used by mental health specialists for diagnostic purposes. Professionals who treat panic disorder use the criteria set forth in the DSM-5 to determine a person’s diagnosis.

The diagnostic criteria for panic disorder are outlined in the manual. As part of panic disorder, panic attacks include four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • 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 an accelerated heart rate (pulse)
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or shaking

The symptoms of panic attacks typically occur spontaneously and peak within the first 10 minutes before gradually subsiding. However, these symptoms have the potential to last longer.

Additionally, numerous panic attacks can occur one after the other, making it difficult to fully recognize when one attack has ended and another one has begun.

The fact that many of these symptoms occur spontaneously does not mean that they were not at all expected. There are two separately defined types of panic attacks in the DSM:

  • Unexpected panic attacks occur without any obvious trigger or cause. They can come on seemingly "out of the blue" even when you are relaxed and resting.
  • Expected panic attacks are those which occur when you are exposed to one of your triggers. For example, if you have a fear of flying you may have a panic attack when you board a plane.

Agoraphobia

Approximately one-third of people with panic disorder will also develop agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia are afraid that they will have some anxiety symptoms or a full-blown panic attack in a place where it would be very challenging or embarrassing for them to flee.

This condition can lead to avoidance behaviors, in which they try to stay away from all places or situations in which they may have a panic attack.

The avoidance behaviors associated with agoraphobia can greatly restrict a person’s life. People with agoraphobia often develop groups of feared situations that are related.

For example, many people with agoraphobia become extremely upset and uncomfortable in areas where there are many people in a confined space. This fear may prohibit them from standing in line at a store, going to a movie theater, or traveling on an airplane.

Other commonly feared situations for people with agoraphobia include forms of travel, being alone, and open spaces. These fears may result in an inability to even leave their homes.

While many people with agoraphobia can face their feared situations, it involves intense stress and anxiety. The symptoms of agoraphobia often limit the person’s day-to-day functioning and restrict where they can work, shop, or travel.

How Many People Have Panic Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 2.7% of U.S. adults have panic disorders. As with other anxiety conditions, panic disorder is twice as common in women as it is in men. Because of this, experts suggest that women and girls aged 13 and older should be screened for anxiety as part of routine preventative exams.

Treatment Options for Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a condition that causes many disturbing mental, physical, and emotional symptoms. Despite these intense symptoms, panic disorder and agoraphobia are treatable conditions.

Given that agoraphobia typically develops early in the course of panic disorder, it is important to seek out help early on. However, treatment can provide much improvement, even for those with long-term symptoms.

There are several effective treatment options for panic disorder. These include:

A Word From Verywell

Panic disorder can greatly impact a person's quality of life, limiting your life, and causing you to miss out on many things, including anything beyond your door. That said, there are many effective treatments and strategies which can help people overcome panic attacks. You can learn to manage the symptoms of panic disorder and regain control over your life.

If you or a loved one are struggling with panic disorder, 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.

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Article Sources
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