What is Panic Disorder? 

People with panic disorder report having repeated and unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden bursts of fear or anxiety where the person feels suddenly terrified, often for no obvious reason (out of the blue), and experience a range of intense physical symptoms. People with panic disorder worry about these attacks and try very hard to avoid triggering one. Sometimes people with panic disorder will start to believe that certain common situations may trigger or worsen their panic attacks and they begin to avoid these situations. In this case, the person may be diagnosed as having panic disorder with agoraphobia.

Commonly Feared Situations in Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder will often try to avoid situations that might trigger a panic attack. Some common situations include:

  • Doing aerobic exercise
  • Experiencing unusual physical sensations such as medications or alcohol intoxication
  • Watching highly emotional news or movies
  • Going into saunas or hot tubs
  • Being trapped or enclosed

People with panic disorder will also avoid many common daily situations such as:

  • Catching public transport
  • Driving on busy highways or in heavy traffic
  • Going to the hairdresser
  • Going into busy shopping malls

This avoidance can be more pronounced and include more situations in those who develop agoraphobia.

People with panic disorder will also report a number of safety behaviours such as:

  • Staying close to home or other “safe” places
  • Traveling places with a safe person (e.g. parent or partner)
  • Carrying pills or water bottles
  • Carrying items to help distraction

People who develop agoraphobia tend to use a larger number and range of safety behaviours.

Common Beliefs in Panic Disorder

The key fear during a panic attack is usually that the person will die during the attack. Therefore most of the thoughts that people with panic disorder report have to do with death or physical injury including:

  • I am dying
  • I am going to faint
  • I have a brain tumor
  • I am trapped / can’t escape
  • I am going crazy

Physical symptoms of Panic Disorder

Some of the common symptoms experienced during a panic attack include:

  • Pounding or racing heart
  • Pins and needles
  • Trembling
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Unusual visual experiences

A wide range of other physical sensations can also occur in panic attacks.

Who is affected by Panic Disorder?

In Western countries panic disorder occurs in around 2.5% to 5% of the population in any year. It occurs more often in women than men. Women are also more likely to show high levels of agoraphobia. Panic disorder usually begins in late adolescence to early adulthood (18-25 years). It can occur in later childhood but this is very rare.

Many people in our society experience an occasional panic attack and do not go on to develop panic disorder. In addition, quite a large proportion of people who develop panic disorder will stop within the first year. Agoraphobia is a more chronic condition that can last for many years if not treated.

People with panic disorder often meet criteria for other anxiety disorders. When agoraphobia is present, other disorders are especially common and can include obsessive compulsive disorder, social phobia, drug/alcohol abuse and depression.