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Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear. The fear is accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These sensations often mimic symptoms of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions.

Many people with panic disorder also experience feelings of anxiety between episodes of panic. It is not unusual for a person with panic disorder to develop phobias about places or situations where panic attacks have occurred, such as in supermarkets or other everyday situations. As the frequency of panic attacks increases, the person often begins to avoid situations where they fear another attack may occur or where help would not be immediately available. This avoidance may eventually develop into agoraphobia, an inability to go beyond known and safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety.

Heredity and other biologic factors, stressful life events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates normal bodily reactions are all believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. The exact causes of panic disorder are unknown and are the subject of intense scientific investigation.

About 6 million American adults have panic disorder. Women are twice as likely as men are to develop panic disorder. Panic disorder typically strikes in the late teen years or young adulthood. Roughly half of all people who have panic disorder develop the condition before age 24.

Panic disorder can coexist with other disorders, most often depression and substance abuse. Appropriate diagnosis and treatment of other disorders, such as substance abuse or depression, are important to successfully treat panic disorder.

What are the risk factors for panic disorder?What are the symptoms of panic disorder?How is panic disorder diagnosed?What are the treatments for panic disorder?Are there screening tests for panic disorder?How can I reduce my risk of panic disorder?What questions should I ask my doctor?What is it like to live with panic disorder?Where can I get more information about panic disorder?

Revision Information

  • Panic disorder. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/panic-disorder.shtml. Updated January 23, 2009. Accessed March 25, 2009.