Panic disorder

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Panic disorder
ICD-10 F41.0
ICD-9 300.01, 300.21
DiseasesDB 30913
MedlinePlus 000924

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Kiran Singh, M.D. [2] Yashasvi Aryaputra[3]


  • Panic disorder is a psychiatric condition characterized by recurring panic attacks in combination with significant behavioral change or at least a month of ongoing worry about the implications or concern about having other attacks.

Historical Perspective

  • It wasn't until 1980 that the DSM-III established a solidified concept of panic disorders. Until this time, panic disorder was being studied separately in both psychology and medicine. [1]


  • There is no established system for the classification of panic disorder.


  • Panic disorder has been found to run in families, and this may mean that inheritance plays a strong role in determining who will get it. It has also been found to exist as a co-morbid condition with many hereditary disorders, such as bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. However, many people who have no family history of the disorder develop it.
  • Other biological factors, stressful life events, life transitions, environment, and thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily reactions are also believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. Often the first attacks are triggered by physical illnesses, major stress, or certain medications. People who tend to take on excessive responsibilities may develop a tendency to suffer panic attacks. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients also show a much higher rate of panic disorder than the general population. The exact causes of panic disorder are unknown at this point.
  • Studies in animals and humans have focused on pinpointing the specific brain areas involved in anxiety disorders such as panic disorder. Fear, an emotion that evolved to deal with danger, causes an automatic, rapid protective response that occurs without the need for conscious thought. This is termed the fight or flight response. It has been found that the body's fear response is coordinated by a small but complicated structure deep inside the brain called the amygdala. Eating disorders have also been linked to have caused panic attacks in several people. Some mood disorders can cause panic disorder. In addition to clinical depression, bipolar disorder can cause panic disorder in some people. Due to the nature of the fight or flight response many cases of panic disorder may be linked with the limbic system and be initiated by those biological factors that could be biological, reinterpreted emotionally as a threat to survival, such as hypoxia (lack of oxygen). If panic disorder is experienced more severely during sleep, it would be recommended to have the sufferer evaluated for conditions such as sleep apnea or hypopnea. A sleep-related panic disorder could be most easily distinguished from a night terror by the ability (usually instantaneous) of the panic disorder sufferer to regain full consciousness, unlike the night terror sufferer.
  • Prepulse inhibition has been found to be reduced in patients with panic disorder [4]. Disorders with PPI deficits are characterized by a loss of the normal ability to suppress or gate irrelevant sensory, motor or cognitive information. This loss of ‘gating’ may be experienced as intrusive thoughts or sensory information. Reduced PPI and gating functions may be a cause of the heightened state of sensory overload that patients suffering from panic attack often experience.
  • Stimulants are a rather common cause for panic attacks. An excess of common stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine often can induce panic attacks in less experienced users. Chemicals, including carbon monoxide, in tobacco smoke can also trigger panic attacks in certain people. Some people's response to small amounts of carbon monoxide is to panic. Not surprisingly, the attacks stop or get much less severe after they quit the cause, such as smoking.
  • Psychological explanations of panic disorder have also been put forward. Clark (1986) suggests that panic disorder is often caused by "catastrophic misinterpretations", whereby normal bodily sensations, often normal responses to anxiety such as palpitations and sweating, are interpreted as indicating something seriously wrong such as a heart-attack, and this interpretation can be done either consciously or subconsciously. Quite a bit of evidence exists for this theory. For example, activating catastrophic misinterpretations increases anxiety and panic; panic attacks can be reduced as a result of cognitively challenging these misinterpretations; with ambiguous events questionnaires, panic-disorder patients interpret ambiguous sensations more catastrophically than controls. Further, a study by Ehler which provided false heart-rate feedback to participants found that those with panic disorder react with far greater anxiety.

Differential Diagnosis

  • Other mental disorders with panic attacks as an associated feature

Epidemiology and Demographics


  • The 12 month prevalence of panic disorder is 2,000-3,000 per 100,000 (2%-3%) of the overall population. 2.7-7.1% of the general population suffers from a lifetime prevalence of panic disorder, meaning repeated panic attacks. [1] [2]


  • Women are twice as likely as men to develop panic disorder. [3]


  • Panic disorder typically strikes in early adulthood; roughly half of all people who have panic disorder develop the condition before age 24, especially if the person has been subjected to a traumatic experience. However, some sources say that the majority of young people affected for the first time are between the ages of 25 and 30.

Risk Factors

  • Asthma
  • Anxiety sensitivity
  • Childhood experiences of sexual and physical abuse
  • Genetic predisposition
  • History of "fearful spells"
  • Identifiable stressors
  • Interpersonal stressors
  • Stressors related to physical well-being
  • Negative affectivity (neuroticism)
  • Offspring of parents with anxiety, depressive, and bipolar disorders
  • Separation anxiety in childhood
  • Smoking[2]

Natural History, Complications, and Prognosis

  • Anxiousness and overadaptation in people with panic disorder begins in childhood. This can be the result of traumatic life events or distressing family conditions.[4]

Diagnostic Criteria

DSM-V Diagnostic Criteria for Panic Disorder[2]

  • A. Recurrent unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, and during which time four (or more) of the following symptoms occur;

Note:The abrupt surge can occur from a calm state or an anxious state.

  • 1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.
  • 2. Sweating.
  • 3. Trembling or shaking.
  • 4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering.
  • 5. Feelings of choking.
  • 6. Chest pain or discomfort.
  • 7. Nausea or abdominal distress.
  • 8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint.
  • 9. Chills or heat sensations.
  • 10. Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations).
  • 11. Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself).
  • 12. Fear of losing control or “going crazy.”
  • 13. Fear of dying.

Note: Culture-specific symptoms (e.g., tinnitus, neck soreness, headache, uncontrollable screaming or crying) may be seen. Such symptoms should not count as one of the four required symptoms.


  • B. At least one of the attacks has been followed by 1 month (or more) of one or both of the following:
  • 1. Persistent concern or worry about additional panic attacks or their consequences (e.g., losing control, having a heart attack, “going crazy”).
  • 2. A significant maladaptive change in behavior related to the attacks (e.g., behaviors designed to avoid having panic attacks, such as avoidance of exercise or unfamiliar situations).


  • C. The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or another medical condition (e.g., hyperthyroidism, cardiopulmonary disorders).


History and Symptoms

  • Panic disorder sufferers usually have a series of intense episodes of extreme anxiety, known as panic attacks. These attacks typically last 10 minutes,however, they can be short-lived at around 1-5 minutes as well. Attacks can wax and wane for a period of hours- one panic attack rolling into another. They may vary in intensity and specific symptoms of panic over the duration (i.e. rapid heartbeat, perspiration, dizziness, dyspnea, trembling, psychological experience of uncontrollable fear, clinical depression, etc.). Some individuals deal with these events on a regular basis—sometimes daily or weekly. The outward symptoms of a panic attack often cause negative social experiences (i.e. embarrassment, social stigma, social isolation, etc.). As a result, as many as 36% of all individuals with panic disorder also have agoraphobia. If not treated, both insomnia and/or anorexia can occur.

Laboratory Findings

  • There are no diagnostic laboratory findings associated with panic disorder.

Other Imaging Studies

  • Recently, structural neuroimaging methods can help to identify potential brain morphological alterations that could possibly relate to the clinical expression of panic disorder.[5]

Other Diagnostic Studies

  • There are no other diagnostic studies associated with panic disorder.


Panic Disorder is real and potentially disabling, but it can be controlled and successfully treated. Because of the disturbing symptoms that accompany panic disorder, it may be mistaken for a life-threatening physical illness. This misconception often aggravates or triggers future attacks. People frequently go to hospital emergency rooms when they are having panic attacks, and extensive medical tests may be performed to rule out these other conditions, thus creating further anxiety. Medical tests which do not identify an underlying physical cause are not uncommon. In the case of severe reactive hypoglycemia, a sudden drop in blood sugar is often overlooked in a healthy person, while tests are designed to reveal the blood-sugar profile of a diabetic rather than an individual with this specific disorder. Pursuing healthy nutritional therapy in the case of any psychiatric illness is essential.

Some individuals with panic disorder have turned to Medications and a type of psychotherapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The mental health professionals that typically can assist an individual in treatment of panic disorder are psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health counselors, and social workers. To pursue a medical treatment for panic disorder, one should visit a medical doctor, typically a psychiatrist. Psychotherapy is typically provided by a clinical or counseling psychologist, a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), or a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). In remote areas, or when a psychiatrist is unavailable, a general practice physician ("family doctor") may be competent to manage the pharmacological ("medications") treatment in coordination with a psychologist or LCSW. A psychiatrist is, by training, better prepared than a general practice physician in the pharmacological treatment and should be sought out if available.

Medications can be used to break the psychological connection between a specific phobia and panic attacks. Medications can include:

  • antidepressants (SSRIs, MAOIs, etc.) : these are taken regularly every day, and build a resistance to the occurrence of the symptoms. Although these medications are described as "antidepressants," nearly all of them have anti-panic properties as well - many panic sufferers do not have classical symptoms of depression, and may be misled by the name "antidepressant" into believing these drugs are not targeted to their symptoms, when they are often the most effective treatment in combination with psychotherapy.
  • anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines): these drugs are taken during or at the onset of panic attacks or before challenging/anxiety provoking situations. Some sufferers also take them daily to prevent panic attacks from occurring. These drugs may be habit-forming if not used according to a physician's directions. They are often most effective at the beginning of treatment when the resistance properties of the antidepressants have not yet built up, and are generally utilized less and less as other parts of the treatment (antidepressants, psychotherapy) become more effective.

Exposure to the phobia trigger multiple times without a resulting panic attack (due to medication) can often break the phobia-panic pattern, allowing people to function around their phobia without the help of medications. However, minor phobias that develop as a result of the panic attack can often be eliminated without medication through monitored cognitive-behavioral therapy or simply by exposure.

Usually, a combination of psychotherapy and medications produces good results. Some improvement may be noticed in a fairly short period of time -- about 6 to 8 weeks. Often, it may take longer to find the right pair of medications and mental health professional. Thus appropriate treatment by an experienced professional can prevent panic attacks or at least substantially reduce their severity and frequency -- bringing significant relief to 70 to 90 percent of people with panic disorder. [6] Relapses may occur, but they can often be effectively treated just like the initial episode.

In addition, people with panic disorder may need treatment for other emotional problems. Clinical depression has often been associated with panic disorder, as have alcoholism and drug addiction. Research has also suggested that suicide attempts are more frequent in people with panic disorder, although this research remains controversial.

Experimental treatment for panic disorder has included nutritional consultation and the use of substances such as inositol, amino acid gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glycine, glutamine, and the calming amino acid L-theanine. Treatment with GABA is both questionable and controversial, as orally ingested GABA cannot cross the blood-brain barrier.Orthomolecular therapy useful in the treatment of depression or which enhances the healthy functioning of the brain may have a role in the treatment of this condition.

About 30% of people with panic disorder use alcohol and 17% abuse psychoactive drugs.[7] This is in comparison with 61% (alcohol)[5] and 7.9% (other psychoactive drugs) [6] of the general population who use alcohol and psychoactive drugs, respectively. It often varies between individual cases whether any observed drug use worsens the condition, or is initiated by the sufferer to alleviate the condition ("self medication"). Most stimulant drugs (caffeine, nicotine, cocaine) would be expected to worsen the condition, since they directly increase the symptoms of panic, such as heart rate. The medically established psychoactive properties of marijuana present a special case - at low doses there may be some anti-anxiety psychological effects comparable to those of benzodiazepines, whereas at some undefined threshold (as dose is increased), marijuana has been shown to produce extreme anxiety on its own, with an intensity potentially comparable to that of the panic disorder symptoms themselves.[7] However, generally only new marijuana users experience anxiety because they are not used to their heart rate temporarily being increased.[8]

As with many disorders, having a support structure of family and friends who understand the condition can help increase the rate of recovery. During an attack, it is not uncommon for the sufferer to develop irrational, immediate fear, which can often be dispelled by a supporter who is familiar with the condition. For more serious or active treatment, there are support groups for anxiety sufferers which can help people understand and deal with the disorder.

Other forms of treatment include journalling, in which a patient records their day-to-day activities and emotions in a log to find and deal with their personal stresses. Breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing, can also be found helpful. In some cases, a therapist may use a procedure called interoceptive exposure, in which the symptoms of a panic attack are induced in order to promote coping skills and show the patient that no harm can come from a panic attack. Stress-relieving activities such as tai-chi, yoga, and physical exercise can also help ameliorate the causes of panic disorder. Many physicians will recommend stress management, time management, and emotion-balancing classes and seminars to help patients avoid anxiety in the future. Research has also shown that the herbal supplement 5-HTP can be used to treat panic disorders by its ability to boost serotonin levels. This works by providing the body with the raw material to make serotonin, as opposed to SSRIs which work by recycling serotonin.

Medical Therapy

  • Medication can be given to help treat the anxiety-like symptoms of panic disorder. [8]


  • One particularly helpful and effective form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is Interoceptive Desensitization. Techniques used may include those based upon the concept that intentional exposure to the symptoms will help decrease the sufferer's fear of panic attacks. In a study by Barlow & Craske (1989), 87% of the individuals that participated in the two of four treatments that involved Interoceptive Desensitization were free of panic at the end of treatment and these results were maintained at a 2-year follow up. In controlled studies of Interoceptive Desensitization treatments compared to other treatments, those treatments that included Interoceptive Desensitization were found to be significantly superior to other treatments such as muscle relaxation alone, or education or insight-oriented treatments. Indeed, Interoceptive Desensitization often leads to a dramatic reduction in the frequency and intensity of panic attacks and as such should be implemented immediately under the guidance of a mental health professional. It is important the patient is given medical clearance and permission from a medical doctor before attempting these exercises.
  • Symptom Inductions generally occur for one minute and may include:
  • The key to the induction is that the exercises should mimic the most frightening symptoms of a panic attack. Symptom Inductions should be repeated 3-5 times per day until the patient has little to no anxiety in relation to the symptoms that were induced. Often it will take a period of weeks for the afflicted to feel no anxiety in relation to the induced symptoms. With repeated trials, a person learns through experience that these internal sensations do not need to be feared – the individual becomes less sensitized or desensitized to the internal sensation. After repeated trials, when nothing catastrophic happens, the brain learns (Hippocampus & Amygdala) to not fear the sensations, and the sympathetic nervous system activation fades.

Brain Stimulation Therapy

  • Transcranial electrical stimulation can be used to treat the anxiety aspects of panic disorder. Otherwise, there is no other strong evidence for brain stimulation therapy being used to treat panic disorders. [9]

Cost Effectiveness of Therapy

  • The cost-effectiveness ratio of the treatment of panic disorder was placed in the 95% confidence interval. [10]

Future or Investigational Therapies

  • There is no information on future or investigational therapies of panic disorder.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Angst J (1998). "Panic disorder: History and epidemiology". Eur Psychiatry. 13 Suppl 2: 51s–5s. doi:10.1016/S0924-9338(98)80014-X. PMID 19698673.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders : DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association. 2013. ISBN 0890425558.
  3. "Facts about Panic Disorder". National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved 2006-09-30.
  4. Angst J, Vollrath M (1991). "The natural history of anxiety disorders". Acta Psychiatr Scand. 84 (5): 446–52. PMID 1776498.
  5. Del Casale A, Serata D, Rapinesi C, Kotzalidis GD, Angeletti G, Tatarelli R; et al. (2013). "Structural neuroimaging in patients with panic disorder: findings and limitations of recent studies". Psychiatr Danub. 25 (2): 108–14. PMID 23793273.
  6. "Panic Disorder". National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved 2006-05-12.
  7. "Panic Disorder". Mental Health America. Retrieved 2007-07-02.
  8. "NIMH » Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms".
  9. "Neuro-stimulation Techniques for the Management of Anxiety Disorders: An Update".
  10. Smit F, Willemse G, Meulenbeek P, Koopmanschap M, van Balkom A, Spinhoven P; et al. (2009). "Preventing panic disorder: cost-effectiveness analysis alongside a pragmatic randomised trial". Cost Eff Resour Alloc. 7: 8. doi:10.1186/1478-7547-7-8. PMC 2680812. PMID 19393084.