Panic disorder

Panic disorder is when panic attacks are recurrent and disabling.

Having one panic attack doesn’t mean you have panic disorder. Around 40 per cent of Australians have a panic attack once or twice in their lives.

Person struggling in wind

How common is panic disorder?

If you have panic disorder, you’re not alone:

  • around 5 per cent of Australians experience panic disorder in their lifetime
  • around 3-4 per cent experience it in any 12 month period.

Panic disorder can develop at any age, but it’s rare in older people and children.

Signs and symptoms of panic disorder

If you have panic disorder you may:

  • have recurring and unexpected panic attacks.
  • worry for at least a month after having a panic attack that you’ll have another one
  • make significant changes to try to avoid panic attacks - for example, you might avoid exercise because it increases your heart rate.

You might also worry about why you’re having panic attacks. For example, some people worry it means they have another illness. They may have repeated medical tests which show nothing’s wrong but still be afraid that they’re unwell.

What does a panic attack feel like?

During a panic attack, you get a sudden sense of overwhelming panic and fear.

Panic attacks usually last for up to half an hour, with the worst symptoms in the first 10 minutes. Afterwards you may feel very tired.

If you have panic disorder they can happen as often as several times a day. Panic attacks can even start while you’re asleep and wake you up in the middle of the night.

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 sweating
  • dizziness, light-headedness or feeling faint.

Some people may also experience ‘derealisation’ - a sense that you or the world around you is not real. This symptom seems to be related to the physiological changes that happen in your body during the panic attack.

Milli's story: “I thought I was about to faint."

“I thought I was having a medical emergency. 

“I thought I was dying.”

 Milli describes what a panic attack feels like.

Panic disorder symptom checklist

Only a GP, psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose panic disorder. The checklist below can help you decide whether you need to take the next step and seek support.

Have you had a sudden surge of intense worry or fear during which you had 4 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’ve felt 4 or more of these symptoms, have you also:

  • Felt persistently worried about having another panic attack?
  • Changed your behaviour to try to avoid having panic attacks again?

If yes, you may be experiencing panic disorder.

We can help you find the support you need at Get mental health support.

Effective treatments for panic disorder

Treatment can help reduce the number and severity of panic attacks.

Research shows that the most effective treatments for panic disorder are:

  • cognitive behaviour therapy
  • online therapy (also known as e-therapies or computer-aided psychological therapy)
  • antidepressant medication – for severe panic disorder.

Learn more about Treatments for anxiety.

Should I get support?

If panic disorder is making your everyday life harder, we recommend you get support. Panic disorder is treatable but it doesn’t usually go away by itself.

Not sure where to start? We can help you find the support you need at Get mental health support.

Causes of panic disorder

There’s no single cause for panic disorder. Several factors are usually involved.

Negative experiences

Panic attacks have been linked to:

  • extremely stressful life experiences – such as redundancy, bereavement and childhood sexual abuse
  • ongoing, unrelenting stress.

Family history

People with panic disorder often have other people in their family who have anxiety or depression. Research suggests there may be a genetic factor.

Biological factors

Some medical conditions are associated with panic disorder. These include cardiac arrhythmias, hyperthyroidism, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

It’s unclear whether panic disorder is caused by these medical conditions.

Supporting someone else

If you’re worried about someone close to you, there are things you can do to support them.

Journey to recovery - personal stories

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Learn what anxiety feels like and how it can be managed.

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References

Beyond Blue uses statistics from trusted references and research. For a full list of references for all statistics quoted on our website, please visit Statistics.