What are Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder?

This is week 5 of a 5-part series that I’ve been doing on some of the most common mental health conditions. Past articles in the series include:

Today’s post is about panic attacks and panic disorder. I touched on the topic of panic attacks briefly in week 2 (anxiety); however, it requires further discussion as anxiety comes in many forms.

Panic Attack (Specifier)

Panic attacks are a surge of intense fear that lasts a few to several minutes. Four or more of the following symptoms justify a panic attack:

  • Racing or pounding heart (many go to the ER worried they are having a heart attack)
  • Sweating
  • Shakiness
  • Trouble breathing or feelings of suffocation or choking
  • Chest pain or heaviness in the chest
  • Abdominal discomfort and nausea
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness (possible fainting or blacking out)
  • Temperature fluctuations (hot to cold or vice versa)
  • Tingling sensations
  • Feelings of being detached from your body (depersonalization)… Kind of like you’re looking at yourself from the outside.
  • Fear of going “crazy” or fear of death

It is worth noting that many diagnoses can be accompanied with panic attacks; for example, there’s a type of major depressive disorder that is specified “with anxious distress.” Panic attacks are also common with generalized anxiety disorder (week 2), PTSD, and substance use disorders.

Panic Disorder

To meet the DSM 5 criteria for panic disorder, a person must have frequent and unexpected panic attacks (symptoms described above). In addition, folks with panic disorder often have anxiety about having additional panic attacks. This may result in compensatory behaviors to avoid having panic attacks, which often makes matters worse or hinders daily functioning.

I talk about my experiences with panic disorder in the book, Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis.


If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety, panic attacks, or possible panic disorder, consider the following:

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