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Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder experience unexpected and repeated panic attacks. They become terrified that they may have more attacks and fear that something bad will happen because of the panic attack (such as going crazy, losing control or dying).

What are panic attacks?

A panic attack is a sudden rush of intense fear or discomfort, which includes at least 4 of the following symptoms:

  • racing or pounding heart
  • sweating
  • shaking or trembling
  • shortness of breath or feelings of being smothered
  • feeling of choking
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • chills or hot flashes
  • nausea or upset stomach
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • a sense of things being unreal or feeling detached from oneself
  • numbness or tingling sensations
  • fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • fear of dying

Panic attacks tend to start quickly and reach a peak within 10 minutes. The peak generally lasts for about 5 to 10 minutes before the symptoms start to settle. However, it can take quite some time for all the symptoms to subside.

What is the difference between panic attacks and panic disorder?

  • Panic attacks are fairly common and having one does not mean that you have panic disorder. For example, if you are feeling very stressed or overtired, or if you have been doing excessive exercise, you might have a panic attack. This does not mean that you have panic disorder.
  • Panic attacks only become a problem if you are regularly worried about having more attacks, or if you are afraid that something bad will happen because of a panic attack. For example, people worry that they will faint, embarrass themselves, have a heart attack, go crazy, or die.
  • In panic disorder, the panic attacks are unexpected and unpredictable. It is common for people with other anxiety disorders to have panic attacks, and this is not panic disorder. For example, people with a phobia of dogs might have a panic attack whenever they are near a dog. But in this case, the panic attack is expected, and the person is afraid of the dog not the panic attack.

TIP: Symptoms of anxiety and panic can be the result of a medical problem (e.g. thyroid disorder). Therefore, it is important to have a medical check-up to rule out any medical conditions.

What Other Behaviours Are Related to Panic Disorder?

Adults with panic disorder will often change their behaviour to feel safer and try to prevent future panic attacks. Examples include:

  • Carrying items such as medication, water or a cell phone
  • Having a companion (e.g. a family member or friend) accompany them places
  • Avoiding physical activities (e.g. exercising, sex) that might trigger panic-like feelings
  • Avoiding certain foods (e.g. spicy dishes) or beverages (e.g. caffeine, alcohol) because they might trigger panic-like symptoms
  • Sitting near exits or bathrooms

My Anxiety Plan (MAPs)

MAP is designed to provide adults struggling with anxiety with practical strategies and tools to manage anxiety. To find out more, visit our My Anxiety Plan website.

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