Symptoms of Panic disorder


General information about symptoms of Panic disorder: The symptom information on this page attempts to provide a list of some possible symptoms of Panic disorder. This symptom information has been gathered from various sources, may not be fully accurate, and may not be the full list of symptoms of Panic disorder. Furthermore, symptoms of Panic disorder may vary on an individual basis for each patient. Only your doctor can provide adequate diagnosis of symptoms and whether they are indeed symptoms of Panic disorder.

List of symptoms of Panic disorder: The list of symptoms mentioned in various sources for Panic disorder includes:

Symptoms of Panic disorder: Do you experience sudden episodes of intense and overwhelming fear that seem to come on for no apparent reason?

During these episodes, do you also experience several of the following:

  • Racing, pounding, or skipping heartbeat
  • Chest pain, pressure, or discomfort
  • Difficulty catching your breath
  • Choking sensation or lump in your throat
  • Excessive sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea or stomach problems
  • Tingling or numbness in parts of your body
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feelings of unreality, or being detached from your body

During these episodes, do you have the urge to flee, or the feeling that you need to escape?

During these episodes, do you think something terrible might happen—that you might die, have a heart attack, suffocate, lose control, or embarrass yourself?

Do you worry a lot about these episodes or fear that they will happen again? And does this fear cause you to avoid places or situations that you think might have triggered the attack?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, chances are you are suffering from panic disorder. If so, you are not alone.1

Typically, a first panic attack seems to come "out of the blue," occurring while a person is engaged in some ordinary activity like driving a car or walking to work. Suddenly, the person is struck by a barrage of frightening and uncomfortable symptoms. These symptoms often include terror, a sense of unreality, or a fear of losing control.

This barrage of symptoms usually lasts several seconds, but may continue for several minutes. The symptoms gradually fade over the course of about an hour. People who have experienced a panic attack can attest to the extreme discomfort they felt and to their fear that they had been stricken with some terrible, life-threatening disease or were "going crazy." Often people who are having a panic attack seek help at a hospital emergency room.

Initial panic attacks may occur when people are under considerable stress, from an overload of work, for example, or from the loss of a family member or close friend. The attacks may also follow surgery, a serious accident, illness, or childbirth. Excessive consumption of caffeine or use of cocaine or other stimulant drugs or medicines, such as the stimulants used in treating asthma, can also trigger panic attacks.

Nevertheless panic attacks usually take a person completely by surprise. This unpredictability is one reason they are so devastating.

Sometimes people who have never had a panic attack assume that panic is just a matter of feeling nervous or anxious – the sort of feelings that everyone is familiar with. In fact, even though people who have panic attacks may not show any outward signs of discomfort, the feelings they experience are so overwhelming and terrifying that they really believe they are going to die, lose their minds, or be totally humiliated. These disastrous consequences don't occur, but they seem quite likely to the person who is suffering a panic attack.

Some people who have one panic attack, or an occasional attack, never develop a problem serious enough to affect their lives. For others, however, the attacks continue and cause much suffering.

Panic Attack Symptoms

During a panic attack, some or all of the following symptoms occur:

  • Terror – a sense that something unimaginably horrible is about to happen and one is powerless to prevent it
  • Racing or pounding heartbeat
  • Chest pains
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands
  • Flushes or chills
  • Sense of unreality
  • Fear of losing control, going "crazy," or doing something embarrassing
  • Fear of dying


In panic disorder, panic attacks recur and the person develops an intense apprehension of having another attack. As noted earlier, this fear – called anticipatory anxiety or fear of fear – can be present most of the time and seriously interfere with the person's life even when a panic attack is not in progress. In addition, the person may develop irrational fears called phobias about situations where a panic attack has occurred. For example, someone who has had a panic attack while driving may be afraid to get behind the wheel again, even to drive to the grocery store.

People who develop these panic-induced phobias will tend to avoid situations that they fear will trigger a panic attack, and their lives may be increasingly limited as a result. Their work may suffer because they can't travel or get to work on time. Relationships may be strained or marred by conflict as panic attacks, or the fear of them, rule the affected person and those close to them.

Also, sleep may be disturbed because of panic attacks that occur at night, causing the person to awaken in a state of terror. The experience is so harrowing that some people who have nocturnal panic attacks become afraid to go to sleep and suffer from exhaustion. Also, even if there are no nocturnal panic attacks, sleep may be disturbed because of chronic, panic-related anxiety.2

Panic disorder may progress to a more advanced stage in which the person becomes afraid of being in any place or situation where escape might be difficult or help unavailable in the event of a panic attack. This condition is called agoraphobia. It affects about a third of all people with panic disorder.

Typically, people with agoraphobia fear being in crowds, standing in line, entering shopping malls, and riding in cars or public transportation. Often, these people restrict themselves to a "zone of safety" that may include only the home or the immediate neighborhood. Any movement beyond the edges of this zone creates mounting anxiety. Sometimes a person with agoraphobia is unable to leave home alone, but can travel if accompanied by a particular family member or friend. Even when they restrict themselves to "safe" situations, most people with agoraphobia continue to have panic attacks at least a few times a month. 2

Symptom statistics for Panic disorder: The following are statistics from various sources about the symptoms of Panic disorder:

  • 87% self-reported palpitations (extra heartbeats) in panic attacks3
  • 82% self-reported fear of loss of control symptoms in panic attacks3
  • 71% self-reported dizziness or fainting-like symptoms in panic attacks3
  • 64% self-reported sweating symptoms in panic attacks3
  • 62% self-reported breathing difficulty symptoms in panic attacks3
  • 49% self-reported detachment with reality type symptoms in panic attacks3
  • 44% self-reported fear of dying type symptoms in panic attacks3
  • 42% self-reported paresthesia/tingling/numbness symptoms in panic attacks3
  • 33% self-reported nausea or abdominal symptoms in panic attacks3
  • 33% self-reported "going crazy" type symptoms in panic attacks3
  • 18% self-reported "choking" type symptoms in panic attacks3

More symptoms of Panic disorder: In addition to the above information, to get a full picture of the possible symptoms of this condition and its related conditions, it may be necessary to examine symptoms that may be caused by complications of Panic disorder, underlying causes of Panic disorder, associated conditions for Panic disorder, risk factors for Panic disorder, or other related conditions.

Medical articles on symptoms: These general reference articles may be of interest:

1. excerpt from Getting Treatment for Panic Disorder: NIMH
2. excerpt from Understanding Panic Disorder: NIMH
3. Taylor, Steven, "Understanding and Treating Panic Disorder: Cognitive-Behavioral Approaches", John Wiley & Sons, 2000 citing Rapee, R.M., Craske, M.G., Barlow, D.H., Subject-described features of panic attacks using self-monitoring, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 171-181, 1999

Last revision: July 1, 2003

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