Overview of Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by frequent, recurring panic attacks. A panic attack is the sudden, unexpected onset of intense fear and discomfort. The following brief narrative describes what a person with panic disorder might experience.

The first time it happened, I was going to the mall to do my Christmas shopping. The mall was very busy and I was going up a crowded escalator. I suddenly felt trapped. My heart was beating beat so fast I thought my chest would burst. I felt faint and started sweating and was very scared. I thought I was going to die. I got off the escalator and made it over to a nearby bench. My legs felt wobbly. I was afraid I wouldn't make it to the bench. After a few minutes, a security guard came over to ask me if I was all right. I looked up at him and told him that I felt very sick. As I talked to him, the feeling started to go away. I was able to drive myself home.

The feelings expressed by the person who had a panic attack in the mall are severe symptoms of anxiety:

  • Alarm, as if in mortal danger
  • Physical discomfort, such as sweating, shortness of breath, palpitations, unsteady on their feet
  • Feeling like they're going to die

Something specific, like the crowded escalator in the example given, usually causes the first panic attack, but subsequent panic attacks may occur without a specific cause or trigger.

Incidence and Prevalence of Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a fairly common condition that can occur at any age, but usually occurs in people between the ages of 12 and 45. Panic disorder affects twice as many women as men. In the general population, the lifetime chance of developing panic disorder may be as high as 5%–10%. Three times as many women than men with panic disorder also suffer agoraphobia.

Panic Disorder Risk Factors

There is some indication that panic disorder runs in families. There seems to be a fivefold increased risk for someone who has a blood relative with the condition. In studies of twins with panic disorder, identical twins are five times as likely as fraternal twins to share the disorder.

New mothers are at a greater risk to experience panic during the first four months after giving birth. Panic usually subsides after they become comfortable with their baby and their new role.

Stressful environmental factors such as problems at work or school, major life changes (e.g., divorce, losing a job), and financial problems may act as a trigger.

Some stimulants, such as caffeine, can produce panic in susceptible individuals.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Feb 2001

Last Modified: 17 Nov 2011