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What panic disorder feels like?

Panic Disorder

If you have repeated and unexpected panic attacks, you may have panic disorder. Panic disorder causes bouts of overwhelming fear when there is no specific cause for the fear. In between panic attacks, you may worry greatly about when and where the next one may happen. It can even keep you from leaving your home.

What causes panic disorder?

Panic disorder is a common mental health problem. It often starts in the teens or early adulthood. But it may also begin in childhood. Women are twice as likely as men to have it. There may be a genetic link to panic disorder. It tends to run in families.

Panic disorder may be an overreaction of the body’s normal survival instincts and behaviors. In people with panic disorder, the body may be more sensitive to hormones that trigger excited feelings in the body.

What are the symptoms of panic disorder?

Panic attacks can happen in other types of anxiety disorders, too. Generally, if you have 4 or more panic attacks and if you always worry about having another, you have panic disorder. Symptoms of a panic attack may include:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sense of choking
  • Upset stomach (nausea) or belly pain
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Feeling unreal or disconnected from oneself
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of going crazy or dying
  • Numbness
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Chest pain and other symptoms that seem like a heart attack

Panic disorder can be upsetting and disabling. An attack can last from a few minutes to an hour. Sometimes it can last longer.

The symptoms of a panic attack may seem like other mental health conditions. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is panic disorder diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider or a mental health provider may diagnose you with panic disorder based on your symptoms. Generally, if you have 4 or more panic attacks and if you are in constant fear of having another, you have panic disorder.

How is panic disorder treated?

Treatment may include:

  • Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medicines
  • Counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or group therapy

Treatment for panic disorders is often very effective. Treatment will help you learn to recognize that the symptoms are not life-threatening. You will also learn coping skills and ways to relax. This can help decrease the intensity and length of the panic attack.

What are possible complications of panic disorder?

As the panic gets worse and attacks last longer, you may find it very hard to cope with everyday life, keep a job, or function in social settings. You may fear going into places where it may be hard to escape or you feel trapped. Some people can’t leave their home. They fear that help is not available. Or they fear they will be forced into a situation that will trigger an attack.

People with this condition may also abuse alcohol or drugs to relieve stress.

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Key points about panic disorder

  • Panic disorder causes bouts of overwhelming fear when there is no specific cause.
  • Symptoms may include pounding heart, sweating, shaking, upset stomach, feeling of choking, and numbness.
  • It is a common disorder and can often lead to depression.
  • You may become so afraid of when the next panic attack may happen that you can’t cope with regular tasks.
  • Treatment includes anti-anxiety medicines and antidepressants along with cognitive behavioral therapy.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN

© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments of Panic Attacks

Katharina Star, PhD, is an expert on anxiety and panic disorder. Dr. Star is a professional counselor, and she is trained in creative art therapies and mindfulness.

Updated on February 13, 2023
Medically reviewed

Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Desperate lady suffering anxiety attack at subway station, feeling helpless

Panic attacks are the most common symptom associated with the diagnosis of panic disorder. However, they can occur with a variety of anxiety and mood disorders, as well as other medical conditions. Panic attacks can also happen in response to specific events or stressful situations.


A panic attack can be described as an intense feeling of fear or extreme nervousness that is brought on abruptly. Typically, these feelings of terror and apprehension occur without warning and are disproportionate to any actual threat or danger.

Panic attacks often last for a brief duration. However, the effects of a panic attack can linger for several hours following the initial attack.

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Panic attacks involve a combination of emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms. For example, when experiencing a panic attack, a person may feel embarrassed or distraught over their symptoms. A variety of somatic symptoms can occur, including sweating, shaking, and chest pain.

The person may fear that they might lose control of their body or mind. Overall, these symptoms can lead to feelings of terror, causing the person to want to escape from their situation.

Diagnosing Panic Attacks

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) lists a set of distinct criteria for panic attacks. According to the DSM, a panic attack involves a sudden fear accompanied by four or more of the following symptoms.  

Panic Attack Symptoms

  • Chest pain
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Derealization or depersonalization
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feeling of choking
  • Feelings of numbness or tingling sensations
  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or shaking

Your doctor will also want to rule out the possibility of any separate medical conditions or related and co-occurring conditions.

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions and affect women at about twice the rate of men. Because of this, experts recommend that women and girls over the age of 13 should be routinely screened for anxiety.   Panic attacks and anxiety can become worse over time, so earlier interventions are important for improving health and well-being.

Are All Panic Attacks the Same?

Not all panic attacks are experienced in the same way. The following describes one way panic attacks are categorized:

  • Expected (cued) panic attacks: These attacks occur when a person is subjected to or is anticipating a particular trigger. For example, a person with a fear of heights may have a panic attack when inside of a tall building.
  • Situational predisposed panic attacks: These attacks are similar to cued panic attacks, but do not always occur after subjection to a feared situation. These attacks also don’t always occur at the time the person is exposed to the trigger. For instance, a person who has a fear of flying may not always have a panic attack while on a plane or may have one after being on a flight.
  • Unexpected (un-cued) panic attacks: These attacks occur suddenly without any internal or external cues.
  • Unexpected panic attack that occurs «out of the blue»
  • Panic attack after exposure to trigger (frightening thought or experience)

Do I Have Panic Disorder?

Having panic attacks does not necessarily mean that a person has panic disorder. People who have panic disorder experience recurring and unexpected panic attacks, but panic attacks are also common among other anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder (SAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and specific phobias.

Are Panic Attacks Treatable?

Panic attacks are a treatable symptom. Typically, treatment options will be geared toward the underlying cause and may involve a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

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Medications prescribed for symptoms of panic attacks include benzodiazepines, a type of anti-anxiety medication that can provide rapid relief for panic symptoms and antidepressants that over time decrease the frequency and intensity of panic symptoms. Psychotherapy can help you explore your fears and learn to manage your frightening physical sensations.

Helpful Coping Strategies

There are also numerous self-help strategies for getting through a panic attack. Some of the more common techniques include:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Desensitization
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Visualization

If you are experiencing panic attacks or think someone else is, it is important that you seek professional help. The sooner you are treated, the more likely you will be able to get some relief and begin to manage your panic attacks.

If you or a loved one are struggling with panic attacks or other anxiety symptoms, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

3 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed, 2013.
  2. Gregory KD, Chelmow D, Nelson HD, et al. Screening for anxiety in adolescent and adult women: A recommendation from the Women’s Preventive Services Initiative. Ann Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.7326/M20-0580
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders.

By Katharina Star, PhD
Katharina Star, PhD, is an expert on anxiety and panic disorder. Dr. Star is a professional counselor, and she is trained in creative art therapies and mindfulness.

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What are panic attacks?

What are panic attacks?

A panic attack is an intense feeling of fear and anxiety. It often happens if people feel anxious about something happening in their life or have experienced something difficult or stressful.

Panic attacks can feel very frightening, especially for children, but they can usually be stopped with treatment. It’s important to know that a panic attack won’t cause any harm and, even if it may not feel it during an attack, the feeling will pass.

Jump to:

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a feeling of fear and anxiety that can overwhelm us quite suddenly and is usually accompanied by intense physical symptoms such as lightheadedness, shortness of breath and a racing heart.

Many children feel a sense of terror during an attack, like something bad is about to happen. These feelings can occur even when there is no real danger.

What causes panic attacks?

It is not always clear what causes panic attacks in children or adults. What we know is feeling anxious about something or experiencing something difficult or stressful can cause a panic attack. These situations include:

  • Anxiety caused by a difficult experience at home or school
  • Stress about things like exams, friendships or relationships
  • The death of a loved one
  • A frightening experience like abuse or neglect
  • A violent experience

Panic attacks in children and adolescents

Panic attacks often begin during adolescence, although they may start during childhood. Attacks can lead to severe anxiety, as well as affecting other parts of a child’s mood or functioning.

Some children begin to avoid situations where they fear a panic attack may occur. Adolescents might use alcohol or drugs to reduce their anxiety. If not recognized and treated, panic attacks can cause future complications for children such as severe depression and suicidal behaviour.

When diagnosed early on, children experiencing panic attacks usually respond well to treatment.

Signs and symptoms of panic attacks

If your child experiences a panic attack, they might feel out of control with what’s going on around them, scared that their body is in danger or even like they are dying. Our bodies can react in different ways to panic attacks. Some of these reactions include:

  • Breathlessness, quick breathing or finding it hard to breathe
  • Light-headedness or a feeling of fainting
  • Finding lights brighter and more intense
  • A rapid heartbeat and a tightness in the chest
  • Sweating more than usual
  • Shaky and wobbly legs
  • Being teary, like they can’t stop crying
  • Feeling stuck, like they can’t move
  • Stomach cramps or feeling sick.
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Ways to help your child cope

Knowing what triggers an attack is the first step in attacking panic. Ask your child how they feel and what is making them feel anxious or stressed. Are there certain situations or places that cause them to feel panicky? This knowledge can help your child think about what they can do to cope with those situations.

During a panic attack, your child may feel like they are losing control, but there are things you can help them do to take back control and feel ‘grounded’ again:

  1. Embrace the episode: Sometimes, it can seem easier to simply avoid a situation or place that makes us panic. It’s natural to feel this way. However, avoiding situations can make our anxiety feel bigger. The goal is not to avoid situations that make us panic, but to help your child learn to cope with how they feel in those situations.
  1. Go through the alphabet: Ask your child to name something for every letter of the alphabet. These could be animals, names, places, foods, etc. This will engage a different part of their brain and move their attention away from fear and anxiety.
  1. Concentrate on breathing: Abdominal breathing is very calming and helps us to draw oxygen deep into our lungs. Here’s an easy 3-step process:
    • Place your hand on your stomach
    • Take 5 deep breaths, spend 5 seconds breathing in and 5 seconds breathing out, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth
    • Explain that when your child inhales, they are blowing up their tummy softly like a balloon, and when they exhale the air is going slowly out of the balloon again.
  2. Findsafe spaces: If your child feels panicked in a situation, guide them towards finding a space where they can breathe and think calmly. This could be a physical space they are familiar with like your home or their room. Or, an imaginary one – somewhere that feels calm – like their favourite part of the park or by the sea.

When to seek professional help

In severe cases of panic attacks, the child or adolescent may be afraid to leave home. If you notice your child showing persisting symptoms of panic attacks, it is time to seek help from your healthcare provider.

Children and adolescents with symptoms of panic attacks should first be evaluated by their family doctor or pediatrician. If no other physical illness or condition is found as a cause for the symptoms, they might be referred to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for an evaluation.

With treatment, panic attacks can usually be stopped. Early treatment can help prevent serious complications.

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