What is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by reoccurring unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack usually consists of intense fear and anxiety, comes on fairly suddenly, and lasts a relatively short time. They can be particularly frightening because we feel out of control.

What is Panic Disorder?

Panic is often accompanied by a sense that something awful is about to happen. We may think we’re about to collapse, die, go crazy or make a fool of ourselves. Some of us can recognise particular situations that may trigger an attack, but for others panic comes ‘out of the blue’ – it’s unexpected and doesn’t appear to be triggered by anything.

Panic Disorder is very common. Research shows one in ten people have experienced at least one panic attack in their life. Some of us have panic attacks for a short while, then they go away. For others panic may cause problems for a longer period.

Anxiety is a normal response to threat or danger. When we experience a panic attack, our natural fear response is engaged incorrectly. In other words, our alarm system goes off when there is no real danger.

It’s a bit like a car alarm designed to protect your car from being stolen. The alarm will go off if someone is breaking into your car. This is the correct response because there is a real danger. But sometimes alarms are too sensitive and will go off when it’s windy, or a lorry drives past. In that case, there’s no real threat and the alarm is firing at the wrong time. It’s picking up harmless signals and reacting as though they are threatening.

The car alarm going off at the wrong time is annoying but isn’t harmful. In the same way, people who suffer from panic attacks often find them very unpleasant, but they do not die or go crazy as a result of having them.

What Happens During a Panic Attack?

Listed below are some common bodily sensations you may experience during a panic attack. They’re often described as being very unpleasant.

  • Heart beating very fast or having palpitations
  • Breathing very fast, known as hyperventilation
  • Feeling short of breath, as if you cannot get enough air
  • Chest pains, headaches or pains in other places
  • Tightness in the throat, feeling as if you are choking
  • An urge to go to the toilet
  • Feeling sick and nausea
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating or hot flushes
  • Feeling unsteady on your feet, as if you might fall over
  • Feelings of unreality, as if you are not really there
  • Not being able to concentrate or feeling confused


As well as these physical symptoms, people often experience frightening thoughts linked to the belief that something dreadful is happening or is about to happen. Physical symptoms can bring on frightening thoughts and frightening thoughts can bring on physical symptoms. These fears are unlikely to come true. But when we experience a panic attack they appear very real and very frightening.

Common Responses

Panic attacks are frightening, so we tend to try and limit or prevent the harm that appears to threaten us.

We may try to escape the situation we are in as soon as possible, retreating to what we consider a safer place. We may also try to avoid situations where we’ve experienced panic attacks before.

Some people develop what are known as ‘safety behaviours’. For example, if we fear we’re about to collapse, we may hold on to something or sit down. If we fear having a heart attack, we may rest. If we fear suffocation, we may open a window or go outside for more air.

If you experience panic attacks regularly, you may need additional support. Find out what CBT is and how it can help here.

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