What is Panic Disorder?


Panic Disorder (PD) is a specific type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by sudden spontaneous panic attacks, also referred to as anxiety attacks. About 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder in a given year and it is twice as likely to occur with women than with men. Those who suffer from these attacks become very preoccupied with the fear of an attack occurring, as they can happen very randomly. The panic attacks that occur as a result of the disorder can be extremely disruptive to daily life, causing people to miss work, social events, or doctors appointments in fear that they might experience an attack. PD usually begins in early adulthood, but can also begin to develop in children who show panic like symptoms in the form of "fearful spells". 

What are the symptoms?

When a panic attack occurs, one thing for sure is that you will know it is happening. During an attack, an abrupt feeling of intense fear or discomfort occurs and reaches a peak within only a few minutes. Typically to be considered a panic attack, at least four of the following symptoms will be present. If only 1-3 of these symptoms are present, it could be possible that a "limited symptom panic attack" is present. 

  • Feelings of choking

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • A feeling of being detached from one's self
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying'

Although General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) may come with some of the physical symptoms above, there is a clear different between general anxiety and PD. What makes PD different is the intensity and duration of the symptoms. When panic attacks occur, they typically plateau in intensity in less than 10 minutes and then fade. Because the symptoms of a panic attack can be intense, it is often mistaken for a life threatening concerns like a heart attack, breathing disorders, or thyroid issues. 

How is PD treated?

Many people with PD keep their panic attacks a secret, due to the fear of being embarrassed. However, PD is highly responsive to treatment and there is no need to suffer in silence. There are proven and effective methods to eliminate the symptoms of PD. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is an evidence based talk therapy technique that is proven to be effective in treating PD. CBT teaches skills and techniques that will allow you to help treat the anxiety that is at the root of these attacks. 

CBT encourages you to swap negative behaviors and thoughts with positive ones, and unrealistic thoughts to realistic ones. These techniques can be used immediately and follow you for many years to come. Your therapist will work with you to make sure progress is being made to manage the symptoms. Generally after 12 weeks of CBT therapy you should be able to see some notable change in the frequency and intensity of the panic attacks. 

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, encourages living in the moment and experiencing things without judgement. This is a helpful to cope with unwanted thoughts and feelings and is based upon strategies involving acceptance and mindfulness.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, places an emphasizes on the way in which we deal with conflict and intense negative emotions with the ultimate goal of correcting our response. 

If you would like to work with a licensed talk therapist who is skilled in treating panic disorders you can start the process here!