Panic Disorder: Causes & Treatment

A man with his head in his hands

What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that comes with intense, recurrent, and unexpected panic attacks. People who have panic disorders react with fear and anxiety in certain situations and stressful events. They may also experience rapid heart rate, severe feelings of terror, and rapid breathing. They may experience these attacks unexpectedly and for no obvious reason, and other times, the feelings may be preceded by some triggering events or situations.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that approximately 2.7% of the adult U.S. population experiences panic disorder each year.

Symptoms of Panic Disorder

Although panic disorder may occur at any point in one`s life, its symptoms most often begin during late adolescence or early adulthood. The common symptoms of panic disorder are a feeling like a heart attack, being on the verge of dying, as well as some other symptoms:

  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Weakness
  • Numbness in the hands and feet
  • Pounding heart
  • Rapid breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Feelings of extreme terror

Panic disorder also causes severe disruptions in daily functioning and make it difficult for people to deal with everyday situations that may trigger feelings of anxiety or intense panic.

How to Diagnose Panic Disorder

Before any conclusion that one suffers panic disorder, they must experience recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. At least one attack should come with the fear of more attacks. Healthcare providers would usually rule out other potential causes of the symptoms. Other conditions that may have symptoms similar to panic disorder are physiological side effects of some drugs or medication, as well as other mental disorders such as social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or separation anxiety disorder

Panic disorder usually makes the sufferers avoid certain situations, and as a result, leads to the development of phobias. A common example is a fear of leaving home in order to avoid having an attack in public. Over time, such people might develop agoraphobia, which is characterized by the fear of being in certain situations outside the home.

Causes of Panic Disorder

Medical science is yet to clearly ascertain the causes of panic disorder, however, mental health experts believe that it is caused by a combination of biological, environmental,  and psychological factors. Let`s look at some possible causes.


Studies have shown that women have more than twice the risk of panic disorder than men.

Life Transitions

poor relationshipPeople going through a life transition or difficult phase such as divorce, marriage, the death of a loved one, or losing a job may experience panic disorder.


People usually develop panic disorder between the ages of 18 and 35.


People who have a family history of panic disorder are much more likely to develop the condition. This doesn`t mean that people without such family history cannot develop the condition. Studies show that up to half of people with panic disorder don`t have relatives with the condition.


Traumatic events such as physical or sexual abuse, can increase the risk of panic disorder.

Types of Panic Attacks

The two main types of panic attacks are unexpected and expected. People with panic disorder usually experience unexpected panic attacks, however, some experience both types.

Unexpected panic attacks happen suddenly without external or internal signals. Expected panic attacks, o the other hand, occur when one is exposed to a situation that they already fear.

Treatment Options for Panic Attack

The common treatment options for panic disorder are psychotherapy, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety drugs.


Psychotherapy for panic disorder entails different approaches. A common approach is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that helps patients learn new ways of thinking and reacting to anxiety-provoking situations. Through this therapy, clients help patients identify and challenge negative thought patterns.

Exposure therapy is another helpful one. It involves exposing people with panic disorder to the situations or objects that trigger a fear response, and at the same time, helping them practice new relaxation strategies.

Panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (PFPP) helps to reveal experiences that could have led to the development of panic and anxiety.


Medications for panic disorder are mainly antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.

The most common class of antidepressant used to treat panic disorder is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Such medications include:

  • Celexa (citalopram)
  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)

Benzodiazepines are a commonly prescribed class of anti-anxiety medication that is effective in reducing the severity of panic attacks. They include:

  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Valium (diazepam)

Lifestyle Changes for Managing Panic Disorder

Regular Exercise

gymPeople with panic disorder are advised to exercise regularly to help reduce anxiety and stress It will also help them reduce tightness all over their body, which in turn, lessen the frequency of panic attacks.

Adequate Sleep

Sleep disturbances and panic disorder don`t go well together. People with panic disorder usually have trouble sleeping, and sleep deprivation can result in even more panic disorder symptoms.

Keep a Journal

A panic attack journal will help you track your triggers and record your physical and emotional symptoms, as well as coping strategies that you have used to manage the symptoms. This way, your doctor can help you better in managing the condition.

Practice Relaxation

There are various relaxation techniques that can help you ease stress and anxiety, as well as slow down your thoughts. These relaxation techniques can also help you prevent the cognitive and physical symptoms of panic disorder. You may speak with your mental healthcare provider on relaxation techniques that are suitable for you.

Some Mental Health Facts

  • Mental illnesses can affect people of any religion, age, race, or social class.
  • Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide.
  • To prevent mental health illness, you`re advised to communicate with family and friends, especially during stressful periods.
  • 50% of adults in the U.S. who have had a problem with substance abuse also suffer from mental illness.
  • One in 10 young people has experienced major depression.
  • Only 44% of adults with diagnosable mental illnesses receive treatment.
  • Treatment for mental health problems can include meditation, therapy, OTC medication, yoga.
  • Genetics, injury, illness, and traumatic life experiences are common causes of mental illness.
  • Mental illness patients are not necessarily violent; only 3-5% of violent acts are attributed to people with severe mental illness.
  • People who have lived through a major disaster are twice at risk of mental health issues than those who haven`t.
  • One in five Americans has experienced some form of mental illness.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the world and accounts for over 800,000 deaths globally every year.
  • Seeking immediate medical attention to trauma can prevent mental health disorders, especially in children and adolescents.
  • People who belong to the LGBTQ community are twice as likely as straight people to suffer mental illnesses.
  • Seek treatment immediately you observe symptoms of poor mental health.
  • Getting adequate sleep, eating balanced meals, and exercising are vital positive lifestyle choices that can prevent mental health issues.
  • One in 10 young people experienced a period of major depression
  • One in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, major depression, or schizophrenia.
  • Employers who hire people with mental health issues report good attendance, punctuality as well as motivation, and excellent performance.
  • People with mental health problems are just as productive as other employees.