by Angela Smith, PhD | Clinical Psychologist

Many people will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime, but most people will not develop panic disorder. Lifetime prevalence rates of panic disorder are approximately 2-6%, making it a common disorder and as many as 1 in 40 individuals will experience panic disorder in a given year. 

A panic attack is characterized by a sudden rush of several physiological symptoms of anxiety, experienced intensely and acutely.

Physical symptoms often include: 
  • Racing heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Choking sensation 
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness 
  • Tingling in extremities
  • Hot flushes or chills
  • Nausea
  • Derealization

Additionally, the fear of doing something out of control and the fear of dying may also occur during a panic attack. 

Panic attacks commonly occur for individuals with social phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and often, these attacks are in response to specific environmental or situational triggers. 

When someone experiences recurrent, un-triggered panic attacks, intense fear of having panic attacks may occur, and avoidance of places and situations that may induce a panic attack are common. 

Closely related, and often co-occurring with panic disorder, is Agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is characterized by a fear of being trapped or without help in the event of panic-like symptoms (such as those listed above). When this fear results in significant avoidance of triggering situations to the detriment of one’s social or occupational functioning, Agoraphobia may be present.  

The good news is that cognitive behavioral treatment for panic disorder is highly effective! Studies indicate that treatments, which combine exposure-based and cognitive therapies result in significant symptom reduction in just a number of weeks.