The main features of panic disorder include sudden but short-lived attacks of terror and fear of losing control. Attacks begin without warning during nonthreatening activities. Affected individuals often go to the emergency room or consult a cardiologist because the physical symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack. (If you ever suspect that you’re having a heart attack, see a doctor or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.) Panic attacks generally peak within 10 minutes and dissipate within 20 to 30 minutes. They are characterized by some combination of the following symptoms:

Panic Attack Symptoms

  • shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • heart palpitations or a racing pulse
  • discomfort in the chest
  • dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling faint
  • choking, nausea, or stomach pain
  • sweating
  • hot or cold flashes
  • trembling or shaking
  • a feeling of detachment from one’s surroundings or a sense of unreality
  • tingling or numbness
  • fear of dying or losing one’s mind.

Symptoms of depression and anxiety are common in people with panic disorder. Although both panic attacks and symptoms of depression and anxiety may improve with antidepressant medications, some people require separate medications.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, six million adults (about 3 percent of adult Americans) suffer from panic disorder each year. It is twice as common in women as in men. Attacks commonly begin in the late teens or early 20s and often go undiagnosed and untreated. One study estimated that only one in four people with panic attacks receives appropriate care.

The most common complication of panic disorder is agoraphobia—fear of being in public places, especially when alone—which develops as a result of trying to avoid situations that have triggered panic attacks in the past. Left untreated, panic attacks and agoraphobia can severely restrict a person’s lifestyle. Panic disorder is also associated with an increased frequency of major depression, alcohol and drug dependency, and suicide.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 07 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 07 Aug 2013