The Symptoms of Panic Disorder

woman with agoraphobia at door afraid to go outside due to panic disorder Photo©Highwaystarz-Photography

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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 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.

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. Often times, the fear associated with agoraphobia can lead to many avoidance behaviors. By limiting one’s ability to be in certain situations, people with agoraphobia often experience feelings of loneliness as well as overall diminished quality of life.

Below we will discuss panic attacks which are the main feature of panic disorder. Panic disorder may occur with or without agoraphobia, and the symptoms of agoraphobia will also be discussed. We will also talk about some of the treatments for panic disorder, and the importance of getting help if you suffer these symptoms.

Panic Attacks

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders 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 attacks are outlined in the manual.

Panic attacks, as part of panic disorder, include four or more of the following symptoms:

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 began.

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 depending on just this factor:

  • 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. Expected panic attacks are again broken down into two categories: situationally bound (cued) in which a person is anticipating exposure to a particular trigger (as with our flying example), or situationally predisposed, in which a panic attack does not always occur when exposed to the feared situation.


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 limit 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.

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, panic attacks, and agoraphobia are all treatable conditions. Given that agoraphobia typically develops within the first year a person begins to have abrupt panic attacks, 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:

Bottom Line

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!

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