Panic attacks are sudden rushes of fear or anxiety that come on for no apparent reason, and they include a number of physical sensations such as having a racing or pounding heart or feeling dizzy. People with panic disorder not only have panic attacks, but they also often develop considerable anxiety between attacks, worrying about when another panic attack might occur, and/or using different methods to try to avoid panicking. Many people with panic disorder also avoid situations in which they might panic, or from which escape might be difficult or embarrassing if they were to panic; this avoidance is called agoraphobia. 

Panic attacks themselves are fairly common, with only some people who experience them going on to develop panic disorder.

Panic Disorder Symptoms

The person experiences recurrent unexpected Panic Attacks and at least one of the attacks has been followed by 1 month (or more) of one (or more) of the following:

  • persistent concern about having additional attacks 
  • worry about the implications of the attack or its consequences (e.g., losing control, having a heart attack, "going crazy")
  • a significant change in behavior related to the attacks
  • symptoms cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning
  • symptoms are not caused by another psychological disorder, or by the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., drug, medication) or a medical condition (e.g., hyperthyroidism)

Panic Attack Symptoms

A panic attack is a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort, in which four (or more) of the following symptoms developed abruptly and reached a peak within 10 minutes:

  • palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • feeling of choking
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • nausea or abdominal distress
  • feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • fear of losing control or going crazy
  • fear of dying
  • paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
    chills or hot flushes

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.