Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder

Article Author:
Curt Cackovic
Article Author:
Saad Nazir
Article Editor:
Raman Marwaha
11/29/2020 5:01:58 PM
For CME on this topic:
Panic Disorder CME
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Panic Disorder


Panic disorder and panic attacks are two of the most common problems seen in the world of psychiatry. Panic disorder is a separate entity than a panic disorder although it is characterized by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) as “an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort” reaching a peak within minutes. Four or more of a specific set of physical symptoms accompany a panic attack. These symptoms include; palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, sensations of shortness of breath or smothering, feelings of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress, feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headedness, or faint, chills or heat sensations, paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations), derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself), fear of losing control or "going crazy", and fear of dying. [1] Panic attacks occur as often as several times per day or as infrequent as only a few attacks per year. A hallmark feature of panic disorder is that attacks occur without warning. There is often not a specific trigger for the panic attack. Patients suffering from these attacks self-perceive a lack of control. Panic attacks, however, are not limited to panic disorder. They can occur alongside other anxiety, mood, psychotic, and substance use disorder. 

In order to make an accurate diagnosis of panic disorder, it is important to differentiate the two entities from each other. According to DSM V, panic disorder can be diagnosed if recurrent unexpected panic attacks are happening followed by one month or more of persistent concern over having more attacks, along with a change in the behavior of the individual to avoid a situation in which they attribute the attack to. Although panic attacks may originate from the direct effects of substance use, medications, or a general medical condition like hyperthyroidism or vestibular dysfunction, they must not derive solely from these. Panic disorder is not diagnosed when the symptoms are attributable to another disorder.  For example, when panic attacks occur in the presence of a social anxiety disorder in which the attacks are triggered by social situations like public speaking, it cannot be considered a part of panic disorder. A distinctive finding in patients with panic disorder is related to the fear and anxiety that they experience in a physical manner as opposed to a cognitive one.[2][3][4]

Panic disorder is not a benign disease, it can significantly affect the quality of life and lead to depression and disability. In addition, these patients are also at a higher risk for alcoholism and substance abuse compared to the general population.


Multiple theories and models exist which speak to the possible etiology of the panic disorder itself. Most indicate the potential role of chemical imbalance as a major factor, including abnormalities in gamma-aminobutyric acid, cortisol, and serotonin. It is believed that a genetic and environmental factor plays a role in the pathogenesis of panic disorder. Several studies show that adverse childhood conditions may lead to panic disorder in adulthood. Newer research indicates that neural circuitry may have a greater role in panic disorder whereby certain areas of the brain are hyperexcitable in individuals and that would make them prone to developing the disorder. [5][6]

Some studies show that genetic factors may play a role in the etiology of panic disorder. First degree relatives have a 40% risk of developing the syndrome if someone in the family already has been diagnosed with the disorder. In addition, patients with panic disorder also have a high risk of developing other mental health disorders.


Panic disorder has a relatively high lifetime prevalence, ranking behind only social anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Notably, patients suffering from panic disorder have much higher lifetime rates of cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and other medical problems compared to the general population. European Americans are more likely to suffer from panic disorder than African Americans, Asian Americans, or Latinos. Females are more affected than men. Panic disorder peaks in adolescence and early adulthood, with low prevalence in children below the age of 14.[5][7][8]

Patients with panic disorders also share many other comorbidities including OCD, social phobia, asthma, COPD, irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, and mitral valve prolapse. Pregnant females with panic disorder are also more likely to have small birth weight infants.


Many neurotransmitters and peptides within the central nervous system appear to play a major role in the physical manifestations. Results of brain imaging studies have shown characteristic changes, including increased flow and receptor activity, in specific geographic regions including the limbic and frontal region. The amygdala is proposed as the main area of dysfunction. From a pathophysiological and psychological standpoint, medical illness and panic disorder are highly correlated. There are two main theories that attempt to explain why patients are more likely to experience panic attacks. The first hypothesizes that susceptible patients lack the appropriate neurochemical mechanisms which would normally inhibit serotonin and this increased serotonin causes alterations in the fear network model of the autonomic nervous system. The second theorizes that a deficiency in endogenous opioids results in separation anxiety and increased awareness of suffocation. [9][10]

History and Physical

The vast majority of patients with panic disorder complain of chest pain, palpitations, or dyspnea on multiple occasions. Other common symptoms may include diaphoresis, tremor, a choking sensation, nausea, chills, paresthesias, or feelings of depersonalization.  Because most patients complain of physical symptoms, they often inquire about alternative explanations of their symptoms not related to mental health. They frequently shy away from care by mental health professionals and instead seek reassurance from specialty medical consultants. It is important to remember that conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and vocal cord dysfunction also have many symptoms similar to panic disorder. 


There are no specific laboratory, radiographic, or other tests required to diagnose panic disorder. The DSM V criteria can be used to diagnose panic disorder which has been mentioned earlier. Certain rating scales designed by the clinicians are used in practice to assess the severity of the panic attacks.  It is, however, important that health care providers perform a thorough examination of the patient to rule out an alternative diagnosis. Panic disorder occurs in the absence of other medical or psychiatric conditions that can better explain the symptoms.[11]

Treatment / Management

The main approaches to the treatment of panic disorder include both psychological and pharmacological interventions. Psychological interventions consist of cognitive-behavioral therapy. As an added benefit in patients with a panic disorder that also has concomitant comorbid medical conditions, there are components of their therapeutic regimens which may also secondarily improve their respective medical illnesses. Breathing training is a method of reducing panic symptomatology by utilizing capnometry biofeedback to decrease the number of episodes of hyperventilation. Several of these slow breathing techniques have been shown to benefit patients with asthma and hypertension. Hyperventilation reduction can help patients with cardiovascular disease. Anxiety and stress-reduction techniques can lower adverse outcomes in cardiovascular illness by decreasing sympathetic activity.   

Antidepressants and benzodiazepines are the mainstays of pharmacologic treatment. Among the different classes of antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are recommended over monoamine oxidase inhibitors and tricyclic antidepressants. SSRIs are considered the first-line treatment option for patients with panic disorder. In patients with co-existing conditions or where the patients are having severe symptoms, it is preferred that a benzodiazepine such as alprazolam is used until the anti-depressants take effect. In patients with substance use disorder and panic disorder, it is recommended that gabapentin, and mirtazapine is used.[12][13][14]

Because of the risk of suicide, some patients may need inpatiet monitoring until the symptoms have subsided.

Differential Diagnosis

  • Angina
  • Asthma
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Mitral valve prolapse
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Substance use diosrder
  • Other mental health disorders associated with panic attacks


Prognosis can be guarded. The presence of panic disorder without other psychopathology is rare. Most people will have a recurrence of symptoms even after a symptom-free period. Compliance with treatment is a major issue and thus relapse of symptoms is common. Only about 60% of patients achieve remission within 6 months. Triggers for poor outcomes include a chronic illness, high interpersonal sensitivity, unmarried, low social class and living alone. Besides premature adverse cardiac events, these patients are also at a risk for suicide.


Panic disorder is associated with a higher risk of suicidal ideation. It is also associated with a decrease in the quality of life as the patient is not able to function normally in his social and family life. The disorder is associated with an increased risk of comorbid medical conditions and smoking.

Deterrence and Patient Education

It is important for a provider to inform the patient about the symptoms that he may suffer from if he is diagnosed with the disorder. If a patient is not aware of these symptoms it is probable that he would fear his condition more and would tend to get frequent attacks. The pharmacotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy should be discussed with the patients so that they can understand the treatment options for the condition that they have.

Pearls and Other Issues




Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

There is no cure for panic disorder, and it can present in a number of ways, thus making the diagnosis difficult. The majority of patients with panic disorder present to the emergency department and hence the role of the nurse and emergency clinician cannot be overemphasized. The patient needs a thorough education on the disorder and understands that the symptoms are not life-threatening. The patient needs to be told about the different treatments available and the need for compliance. Plus, the pharmacist should caution the patient against the use of alcohol or recreational drugs. The patient should be taught to recognize the triggers and avoid them. Before starting any drug therapy, the patient should be informed about the side effects and benefits. In addition, the family should be educated by the nurse and clinician in helping the patient overcome unrealistic fears and other behaviors. Finally, the patient should be educated on a healthy lifestyle by adopting good sleep hygiene, exercise, and a healthy diet. The patient should be advised against any herbal supplements without first speaking to the primary care provider. [15][16](Level V) A team approach to the care of these patients will lead to the best outcomes. [Level 5]


Panic disorder has no cure, and its course is unpredictable. The currently available pharmacological therapy and cognitive behavior therapy do work in about 80% of patients, but relapses are common. About 20% of patients continue to have symptoms that lead to poor quality of life. About two-thirds of treated patients have a good prognosis, achieving remissions for about six months at a time. If the trigger factors like stress, alcohol, financial problems, divorce are not controlled, the symptoms can create havoc. More important, there is a high risk of coronary artery disease in patients with panic disorder and the risk of sudden death is increased compared to the general population. Finally, the suicide rate is much higher in patients with panic disorder. There is a high association of social, occupational, and physical disability caused by panic disorder. [17][18][19](Level V)


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