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Panic Disorder

It is normal for the built-in alarm in the body’s nervous system to be triggered by impending danger. Any individual reacts instinctively by swerving a car to avoid a collision or reacting to seeing a grizzly bear. This natural fight-or-flight response to danger can protect them from a life-threatening situation.

Research suggests the fight-or-flight response is also involved in panic disorders. Yet the alarm system is set off at inappropriate times, without present danger and for no apparent reason. The resulting panic attack is the sped up heart or rapid breathing of the alarm system.

Panic attacks typically begin suddenly, without warning and at any time—when driving a car, shopping, sleeping or working. They may be occasional or occur frequently. Despite the suddenness, over time panic attacks are usually triggered by certain situations. They usually peak within minutes, often leaving the individual tired and worn out after it subsides.

Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms of panic disorder often start in the late teens or early adulthood and affect more women than men. Mental and physical sensations of panic attacks typically include:

  • Sense of impending doom, danger or death
  • Fear of loss of control or feeling of unreality or detachment
  • Pounding heart rate, chest pain
  • Rapid breathing, tightness in the throat
  • Sweating, trembling, shaking 
  • Hot or cold flashes, abdominal cramping, nausea
  • Headache, dizziness
  • Numbness or tingling sensation

Most people who have experienced a panic attack have an intense fear of having another one. This fear often causes panic attacks to become more intense and frequent. As individuals grow more aware of their propensity for panic attacks, they live in a constant state of fear, fearing medical conditions (heart attack or stroke) or mental health conditions (loss of control or never being the same again). Avoiding situations where they may occur can destroy their quality of life.


While causes of panic disorder are unknown, some risk factors include:

  • Family history of panic disorder 
  • Major life stressors or changes, such as the death of a loved one, divorce or a new baby
  • Temperament more sensitive to stress and negative emotions
  • Traumatic event, such as sexual assault or a serious accident
  • Smoking or excessive caffeine use
  • History of childhood physical or sexual abuse

Left untreated, panic attacks and panic disorder can affect most areas of one’s life and cause or relate to even further problems, such as:

  • Developing specific phobias or agoraphobia, such as fear of driving, leaving one’s home or over dependence on others to take care of routine tasks
  • Frequent medical care for health concerns and other medical conditions
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Problems at work or school
  • Depression, anxiety disorders and other psychiatric disorders
  • Increased risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts
  • Alcohol or other substance misuse
  • Financial problems

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