Panic Disorder

A panic attack is a sudden onset of intense apprehension, fear, or terror that is often associated with feelings of impending doom. It also involves the sudden onset of intense physical sensations or symptoms.

A panic attack is different from other types of anxiety in that it involves an intense rush of fear or physical sensations that reach a peak very quickly, usually within ten minutes. During a panic attack, people may feel that things around them are not real, that they're going to die or they they're going crazy. Physical symptoms associated with a panic attack include shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling, sweating, choking, and heart palpitations.

Panic attacks often occur in feared situations such as giving a speech, flying, seeing a snake, or other situations that usually make a person fearful. For some people, however, panic attacks occur spontaneously or "out of the blue", leading a person to think that s/he is having a heart attack or a terrible undiagnosed illness.

Panic Disorder, which affects 2% to 3% of the adult population, is diagnosed when spontaneous panic attacks frequently occur and the person experiencing them spends a significant amount of time worrying about the next panic attack. People with Panic Disorder usually limit their social and vocational activities because of fear of having another panic attack.

Do you have it?

Please think back to the last three months, did you:

  1. Have a spell or an attack when all of a sudden you felt frightened, anxious, or very uneasy?
  2. Did you also, for no apparent reason, experience physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, feeling faint and not able to catch your breath?
  3. Did these attacks come on very suddenly, usually reaching their peak in a minute or two, and lasted anywhere from seconds to 10 minutes?

If your answer is "yes" to the above questions, you may have Panic Disorder.

Is there help?

Yes. Certain medications and psychological treatments have been shown to be effective for some individuals with panic disorder. If you are interested in knowing more about medications for panic you can consult your family doctor or a psychiatrist.


Medications useful for preventing panic attacks include certain types of antidepressants (e.g., serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and, in some cases, benzodiazepines (e.g., alprazolam, clonazepam, and others).


Cognitive behavior therapy is also an effective option for some individuals with panic disorder. This therapy focuses on helping the person understand their anxiety, monitor and change unhelpful thoughts in anxiety provoking situations, learn relaxation strategies and gradually confront feared situations. You can contact a mental health professional or check out a self-help manual to find out more about this treatment.

At the UCSD Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders Clinic, we are conducting a research study for treatment of panic and generalized anxiety. Eligible participants will receive 10 sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) over 8-10 weeks, In addition brain activity will be measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify key areas of the brain implicated in anxiety. For more information please call 1-877-UCSD-SHY (1-877-827-3749).

Informational Resources

Anxiety Disorders Association of America

National Institute of Mental Health