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Neurosciences and Behavioral Health Center

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent and unpredictable bursts of terror known as panic attacks. A panic attack is accompanied by physical symptoms that may feel similar to a heart attack or other life-threatening condition.

Intense anxiety often develops between episodes of panic. As panic attacks become more frequent, you may begin to avoid situations that could trigger them. Panic attacks can lead to agoraphobia, the fear of being trapped in places or situations where escape could be difficult or impossible.

Panic disorder is likely to be an interaction of:

  • Genetics
  • Changes in brain function or metabolism
  • Psychosocial stressors that combine to influence the brain's fear networks

Risk Factors

Panic disorder is more common in women and young adults. Other factors that may increase your risk of developing panic disorder include:

  • Family history
  • Stressful life events
  • Increased sensitivity to physical sensations
  • History of another anxiety disorder or anxious temperament
  • Cigarette smoking during adolescence and young adulthood


Panic attacks usually occur unexpectedly and repeatedly. Panic attack symptoms may include:

  • Sudden and intense episodes of fear
  • Racing, pounding, or skipping heartbeat
  • Chest pain, pressure, or discomfort
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Choking sensation or lump in the throat
  • Excessive sweating
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Tingling or numbness in parts of the body
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feelings of unreality or being detached from the body
  • An urge to flee
  • Fear of impending doom, such as death, a heart attack, suffocation, loss of control or embarrassment
  • Stomach pain


Diagnosis & Treatment

Your doctor can diagnose you with panic disorder if you have had a panic attack with at least four symptoms and persistent worries about the attack for more than one month. Since some panic disorder symptoms are similar to heart, digestive, and/or thyroid problems, your doctor may recommend tests to rule out an underlying condition.

Treatment aims to decrease the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can prepare you for situations that may trigger panic attacks. Therapy focuses on:

  • Learning how to recognize what causes your fears
  • Gradually forming healthier thinking patterns
  • Doing breathing exercises to increase relaxation
  • Reducing fear and feelings of terror


Your doctor may recommend antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.


Call 434.243.3675.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.


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