Panic disorder

Panic disorder is the term used to describe when panic attacks are recurrent and disabling. Panic disorder can be characterised by:

  • The presence of recurring and unexpected (‘out of the blue’) panic attacks.
  • Worrying for at least a month after having a panic attack that you will have another one.
  • Worrying about the implications or consequences of a panic attack (such as thinking that the panic attack is a sign of an undiagnosed medical problem). For example, some people have repeated medical tests due to these worries and, despite reassurance, still have fears of being unwell.
  • Significant changes in behaviour that relate to the panic attacks (such as avoiding activities like exercise because it increases the heart rate).

During a panic attack, you're suddenly overwhelmed by the physical sensations described above. Panic attacks reach a peak within about 10 minutes and usually last for up to half an hour, leaving you feeling tired or exhausted. They can occur several times a day or may happen only once every few years. They can even occur while people are asleep, waking them up during the attack. Many people experience a panic attack once or twice in their lives; this is common and is not panic disorder.

What are the signs and symptoms of panic attacks

Panic attacks are surprisingly common. Up to 40 per cent of the population will experience a panic attack at some time in their life.1 Some of the common signs and symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • a sense of overwhelming panic or fear
  • the thought that you are dying, choking, ‘losing control’ or ‘going mad’
  • increased heart rate
  • difficulty breathing (feeling that there is not enough air)
  • feeling choked
  • excessive perspiration
  • dizziness, light-headedness or feeling faint.

People experiencing a panic attack may also experience ‘derealisation’; a sense that you or the world around you is not real. This symptom is thought to be associated with the physiological changes that occur in the body during the anxiety response.

Panic disorder symptom checklist 

Have you had a sudden surge of intense worry or fear during which you had four or more of the following symptoms:

  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • increased heart rate
  • short of breath
  • feeling like you are choking
  • feeling nauseous or having butterflies or pain in the stomach
  • dizzy, lightheaded or faint
  • numb or tingly
  • derealisation (feelings of unreality) or depersonalisation (feeling detached from yourself or your surroundings)
  • hot or cold flushes
  • scared of losing control or going crazy
  • scared of dying?

If you have felt more than four of the above symptoms, have you also: felt persistently worried for one month or more, of experiencing these feelings again, or changed your behaviour to try to avoid having panic attacks again? If yes, you may be experiencing panic disorder.

How common is panic disorder and who experiences it?

Approximately 5 per cent of people in Australia will experience panic disorder in their lifetime, with 2.6 per cent experiencing panic disorder over a 12-month period.2 It is estimated that slightly more women than men have panic disorder, which usually begins when people are in their early to mid-20s or in mid-life.

Although panic disorder can occur at any age, it is rare in older people and children.

What causes panic disorder?

There is no single cause for panic disorder. A number of factors are usually involved, including:

  • Family history – People with panic disorder tend to have a family history of anxiety disorders or depressive conditions, and some studies suggest a genetic component.
  • Biological factors – Some medical conditions (cardiac arrhythmias, hyperthyroidism, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and irritable bowel syndrome) are associated with panic disorder.
  • Negative experiences – Extremely stressful life experiences, such as childhood sexual abuse, redundancy or bereavement, have been linked to panic attacks. Periods of ongoing, unrelenting stress are also a risk factor.

What treatments are available for panic disorder?

Treatment can be very effective in reducing the number and severity of panic attacks in most people. Seeking professional support is the first step towards recovery. There are two main types of treatment for panic disorder; psychological treatments will generally be the first line of treatment. In some severe cases, medication can also be effective.


1. For a full list of references for the statistics on this page, and any others across the website, please visit the references page and search through the relevant category.