What is Panic Disorder? The Complete Guide

What is Panic Disorder? The Complete Guide

Your first panic attack can be a traumatic experience in and of itself.  Shortly after your first panic attack, it’s not uncommon to experience additional panic attacks. Before you know it, you’re having panic attacks on a regular basis as panic disorder sets in. So, what is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that can set in following a panic attack. People with panic disorder develop a fear of panic attacks, causing them to overthink or worry to the point of bringing on additional panic attacks. During a panic attack, one feels intense anxiety and fear, often believing they are losing control or dying. 

But this definition of panic disorder is just the tip of the iceberg.

If you suspect you may be suffering from panic disorder, continue reading through the rest of this article. By the end, you’ll have a much greater grasp on what panic disorder is and how to deal with it.

Let’s get right into it!

What is Panic Disorder?

Alright, so by now you should have a general understanding of what panic disorder is; but let’s go a bit deeper with this.

Unique from other anxiety disorders, panic disorder can best be described as the phobia or fear of fear itself. Someone suffering from panic disorder literally becomes so afraid of having a panic attack, they actually give themselves a panic attack. Painfully ironic, I know.

It’s important to keep in mind that having a panic attack or two throughout your life is not necessarily indicative of panic disorder. It’s completely possible for a person to have just one panic attack in their life and never experience it again. A person only develops panic disorder if and when they form a phobic relationship with panic attacks, causing recurrent panic attacks long-term.

Panic disorder and panic attacks can be highly disruptive and restrictive to the person enduring them.

Fortunately, both conditions are very manageable.

I promise I will spend most of this article discussing my own personal solutions to panic disorder, but FIRST, I think it’s important to spend just a few moments talking about what panic attacks actually are.

What is a Panic Attack?

During a panic attack, the brain heightens the senses and puts our body into “fight or flight” mode. For our ancient ancestors, this state of mind might have helped hem to survive an enemy or predator.

Unfortunately, sometimes our brains can be a little over-eager to enter this mode in the 21st century when it is often much less useful.

It can be a terrifying occurrence, but panic attacks are not dangerous for otherwise healthy individuals.

Panic attacks can occur for seemingly no reason at all. They may also be triggered to occur as a result of stress or specific stimuli, as is the case with phobias or other anxiety disorders.

When panic attacks start to occur frequently or become a routine or pattern in one's life, they may have developed panic disorder.

Not sure whether or not what you’ve been feeling are panic attacks?

Let’s figure it out together.

What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

Panic Disorder Symptoms

  • Fast, hard, or irregular heartbeat
  • Rapid, shallow, or irregular breathing
  • Feeling of imminent death or that something bad will happen
  • Tingling sensations or numbness
  • Racing or uncontrollable thoughts
  • Sweating, shaking, or trembling
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • “Fight or flight” instinct to escape
  • Fear that others will notice you are having a panic attack

A Panic Attack in Action

Panic attacks come in all shapes and sizes. From person to person, factors such as frequency, intensity, and symptoms experienced can vary significantly. One person may experience nausea and hyperventilation, while another person experiences heart palpitations and shaking.

Despite significant variation in the panic attack symptoms that people experience, just about every panic attack feels intensely frightening; most people describe a sense of impending doom, the desire to "escape," or the fear of losing control or going crazy.

Here’s one fictional example of how a panic attack might “randomly” occur:

You’re sitting in the passenger seat of your friend’s car looking out the window laughing and having a good time, but suddenly something feels “off.”

Without any provocation, your lungs feel as though they are not pulling in enough air.

You roll the window down and take a deep breath in, but to no avail. Your breathing is now shallow and rapid; you feel like a fish pulled out of the water.

Your heart has started to race, pounding out of your chest as though you are halfway through running a marathon. Putting your hand to your breast, you start to wonder if your heartbeat is irregular.

I’m freaking out. Can my friends tell I’m freaking out?

You look around the car and your friends are laughing at a joke one of them must have told. Your friend in the driver seat looks over at you and smiles, but you haven’t been following the conversation.

Just calm down, you tell yourself, get a grip. But trying to fight the emotions only amplifies them.

Sweat covers your shaking palms as you reach for the car door handle. You feel compelled to escape somewhere, anywhere, but the car you’re in is on the highway.

A few moments later, your heartbeat starts to slow to a normal speed and your breathing returns to normal. Your thoughts are your own again, and your panic has subdued. You look around the car; no one has noticed your strange behavior this time.

Your panic attack has come and gone.

How Can I Beat Panic Disorder?

At this point, you should totally understand what panic attacks are, what panic disorder is, and how the two are linked.

You’ve been patient for reading along so far, and now it’s time for your patience to be rewarded.

Now it’s time to talk about how you can start to get the edge on panic disorder. As always, our medical disclaimer applies here. So please use this information responsibly and remember that I’m not a doctor, just a previously-anxious dude talking from significant personal experience.

With that said, let’s do this.

The only thing we have to fear is... Fear itself

Franklin D. Roosevelt - 32nd President of the United States

The famous quote by Franklin Roosevelt applies wonderfully here. “The only thing we have to fear is… fear itself.”

At its root, I personally consider panic disorder to be a type of phobia. A phobia is an extreme irrational fear or aversion to something. In the case of panic disorder, we are having an extreme irrational fear or aversion to panic attacks. In short, when we are suffering from panic disorder, we are fearing fear itself.

If you want to have any chance at beating panic disorder, this is the most basic truth you must learn to understand: Your panic attacks are being caused by your irrational fear of having panic attacks.

In other words, you’re stuck in a loop.

Because you’re afraid of having a panic attack, you experience debilitating anxiety to the point where panic attacks actually occur. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy. And, with every panic attack you fall victim to, you reinforce the fear and continue the vicious cycle.

For this reason, the only way to truly and effectively beat panic disorder is to eliminate your fear of panic attacks; to “unlearn your fear of fear itself,” if you will.

Let’s start there.

Step 1: How to Stop a Panic Attack

If our goal is to beat panic disorder by unlearning our fear of panic attacks, the intuitive place for us to start is by learning how to stop a panic attack as they occur. Logically speaking, once we feel that we can comfortably regain control of our panic attacks, the prospect of having one becomes far less intimidating.

There are already many resources to be found throughout this website that offer unique and effective measures for how to stop a panic attack as one occurs. To keep this particular page from running on too long, I’ll just start you off the with basics here.

Some simple advice for stopping a panic attack:

  1. Recognize that you are having a panic attack
  2. Remember that you are not going to die
  3. Take control of your breathing (6 seconds in, 6 seconds out works fine)
  4. Find a focus object or something else to think about
  5. Talk to a trusted friend and try to find something to laugh about

While this should be a decent start for you, there are many different methods for stopping panic attacks, and I advise you to read, watch, absorb, and try every method available.

I provide a short, free eBook exclusively on this website to serve as a starter guide for panic attacks and panic disorder. If you input your email, you should immediately receive the free PDF in your inbox. This eBook should go a bit further than the basics, and tell you about some of the stranger tricks I’ve used to stop panic attacks over the years.

chill the f*ck out book cover

Alternatively, you can check out some of our articles such as this one on how to stop a panic attack.

learn more about anxiety academy

I realize this is a lot of information to throw at you at once, so just choose whichever format works best for you. You don’t necessarily have to go through all of them, but the more methods you have at your disposal for stopping panic attacks, the faster you’ll ultimately gain confidence in dealing with them.

Step 2: Understanding Anxiety Better

I know, I know. You’ve already read a ton, and I’m sure you’re exhausted by now. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but I also don’t want you to be cutting corners when it comes to beating panic disorder. This article covers panic disorder and panic attacks (hopefully) more thoroughly than any other website out there, but there’s still more to learn about anxiety in general.

I don’t want to be dishing piles of homework on top of you here, but at some point, I really do suggest reading this article on the root cause of anxiety. This can help you to better understand why you’re feeling this way. Even if you might not necessarily care what the psychological mechanisms are behind anxiety, taking the time to learn will help you to eliminate any fear of the unknown you might be having. Really understanding your anxiety and panic attacks can help you to approach them from a position of logic rather than emotion.

Don’t feel overwhelmed here, either. You really don’t need a psychology degree to understand this stuff. Just that one article I linked to above should be enough; read that and you should know everything you need to know about anxiety to start beating it!

Step 3: Preventing Anxiety Attacks from Occurring

By now, we know how to stop panic attacks as they occur, and we have a thorough understanding of the mechanisms behind our anxiety and panic attacks. That’s already half the battle, so give yourself a pat on the back!

Next, we’re going to want to focus on panic attack prevention methods.

It’s important to note that preventing panic attacks is not the same as stopping panic attacks as they occur. Rather, when we focus on preventing panic attacks, we’re being preemptive about it; we’re utilizing methods and strategies that will decrease the odds of panic attacks ever even occurring in the first place. Sounds pretty good, huh?

Here are my personal recommendations for anxiety prevention:

  1. Exercise for at Least 10 Minutes Per Day
  2. Incorporate Yoga into Your Daily Routine
  3. Practice Meditating for at Least 1 Minute Each Day
  4. Adjust Your Diet to Decrease Anxiety Levels
  5. Eliminate or Minimize Stressors
  6. Make Sure You’re Getting Adequate Sleep
  7. Limit Your Alcohol and Drug Use
  8. Kick Your Caffeine Habit
  9. Start Talking to a Therapist
  10. Consider Taking Supplements for Anxiety

Incorporating these simple lifestyle changes into my own life has done a fantastic job of decreasing both the frequency and the intensity of my own panic attacks and anxiety. In fact, utilizing just a handful of these methods on a regular basis is usually enough to prevent even mild, general anxiety from creeping up on me.

Of course, I’m keeping the list brief here for the sake of time, but you can feel free to read the full article on how to prevent anxiety here.

Alternatively, you can check out this video from our YouTube channel:

Step 4: Tools for Beating Panic Attacks

Now that you’ve been implementing some of the healthy methods for anxiety prevention, you should be experiencing less anxiety, and fewer panic attacks from day-to-day. Better yet, the aforementioned anxiety prevention methods will also probably decrease the intensity of any panic attacks you do have. Coupled with the methods we discussed for how to stop a panic attack, you should feel confident in your ability to quickly stop any panic attacks that might slip through the cracks.

Here comes the fun part!

I’ve always had a knack for finding unconventional solutions to common problems. Over the years, my curiosity has led me to experiment with hundreds of different products with the purpose of anxiety or stress relief. While oftentimes these products failed to live up to expectations, there were plenty of occasions where I was successful in finding quality products that helped me with my anxiety.

To clarify, when I say “tools” or “products,” I’m referring to:

  • Books about Anxiety or Panic Disorder
  • Anxiety Supplements
  • Free Apps for Anxiety Management
  • Online Therapy Options
  • Gifts and Gadgets for Stress Relief
  • Herbal Teas for Effective Relaxation
  • Etc.

For step 4, I’ll redirect you to the recommended products page.

Everything mentioned in this section is something that I have tried or used myself. Don’t worry about sorting through “bad” or “good” reviews, everything on there worked for me. I don’t intend to use this section to drag businesses through the mud, only to highlight the best stuff that did help.

If you’re craving an even deeper understanding of anxiety, panic disorder, or anything else I cover on this site, I recommend checking our the “Books” section. This is where I’ll refer you to experts with different perspectives, or greater specialized knowledge on a topic than myself.

If you’re feeling more anxious or panicky than usual, I recommend checking out the “Anxiety Supplements” section, where you can learn about the different anxiety supplements that can help you to safely take the edge off your anxiety on the worst of days (when used safely and responsibly!).

You can sort through at your own pace and decide if anything listed might help you on your own journey with panic disorder. If not, no worries! Although recommended, not everyone is going to need step 4.

Step 5: Exposure Therapy and Other Options

Woohoo! You’ve made it to the final step for beating panic disorder.

Throughout the course of this article, your relationship with panic attacks and panic disorder should have slowly been evolving. At the start, you likely felt like a victim to your panic attacks and panic disorder; fearing panic attacks, and avoiding any situations or thoughts that you feared might lead you to have one.

By learning about anxiety and panic disorder, learning how to stop panic attacks, and utilizing prevention techniques and tools to more effectively stop and prevent your panic attacks, your relationship with anxiety shifted from “avoidant” to “defensive” mode. You’re no longer blindly running from your fears; rather, you’ve been preparing yourself all this time to weather the storm more easily. By now, panic attacks should be far less intimidating to you than they were before you stumbled upon this page.

With Step 5, it’s time for one final shift in your relationship with anxiety and panic attacks. In step 5, we’re going to take you from a “defensive” position to an “offensive” position. That’s right, we’re going to take panic disorder head on!

There are a few different ways to do this, but my personal favorite method is to use a variation of exposure therapy. Like the other steps, the topic of exposure therapy warrants a full-length article of its own, so check out our article on exposure therapy to fully complete this last step.

But, to give you a quick explanation, exposure therapy is a common method used for treating phobias. Through exposure therapy, a person attempts to slowly and safely introduce themselves to a small, controlled amount of whatever it is they’re afraid of. For example, if a person has a fear of public speaking, they might start by giving a short speech in front of just one trusted friend. The next time, the same person might try speaking in front of a group of 3 or 4 friends, and so on.

In this way, a person can unlearn any irrational fears they might have by slowly retraining the brain to realize that their fears do not pose a genuine threat.

With regard to panic disorder, what I like to suggest is a change of mindset regarding panic attacks (after, and only after, all of the previously mentioned steps have been completed). Once you feel comfortable in your ability to stop your panic attacks, and realize that they are nothing but harmless, irrational thoughts, you can take the fight to them.

The goal is for you to eventually get to a point where you can willfully challenge your panic attacks to occur. Think, “Come on panic attack, let’s see the worst you can do,” and mean it. Depending on how far along you are at beating panic disorder, one of two things will happen:

  1. If doing so brings on a panic attack, that’s okay! Just shift your focus once again. Don’t view the situation as a tragic event that is happening to you, but rather as an opportunity; how fast can you get your panic attack under control this time? Set a timer. Can you beat last time’s score? Is it more or less intense than last time? Study your panic attack with a scientific level of curiosity; view it as an opportunity to learn and improve, rather than responding emotionally to the panic attack.

    Remember that having a panic attack does not set you back or make you lose the progress you’ve made. Remain logical and objective about your panic attacks, and even a severe panic attack can, in fact, be considered progress. It’s a long game that you will win if you stay committed.
  2. If you challenge a panic attack to take hold and none do, congrats! You just kicked the crap out of panic disorder. While this may sound crazy to anyone just starting their journey beating panic disorder, this is absolutely an attainable goal. At a certain point, you will be able to challenge your panic attacks to take hold and nothing will happen.

Your end goal with panic disorder will probably be to completely eradicate your fear of panic attacks.

When you stop fearing your panic attacks, you’ll have broken the cycle that is panic disorder.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend going back through the 5 steps listed on this article and doing each of them. By the end, I believe you’ll make significant improvements toward beating panic disorder!

Good luck!

Panic Disorder FAQs

How Common is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder affects as many as 6 million people in the United States. About 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder per year. Panic disorder is about twice as common in women as it is in men. The onset of panic disorder is usually sometime around early adulthood, but can realistically begin at any time in a person’s life.

Is Panic Disorder Genetic?

Panic disorder and panic attacks can be genetic, as anxiety in general can be a hereditary trait. Take a look or ask your family members about their own experiences with anxiety. If several of your blood-related family members also suffer from an anxiety disorder, chances are your anxiety is hereditary. However, even if you are not “genetically predisposed” to anxiety, there is still a chance of you developing panic disorder due to your environment or life experiences.

Does Panic Disorder Ever Go Away?

Generally speaking, people with panic disorder will probably be more prone to anxiety and panic attacks for most of their lives. However, most forms of anxiety generally do decrease as we age. Additionally, we are not powerless to panic disorder. As time goes on and you gain greater understanding of and experience with your panic attacks, you will likely find them occurring much less frequently and being much easier to manage. The effort you choose to put forward will make a big difference here.

Can I Take Medication for Panic Disorder?

While medication may sometimes be prescribed for panic disorder, it’s not much of a long-term solution for most people. Oftentimes, taking medication for panic attacks is like putting a bandage on a leaky pipe; you’re ignoring the root issue. Daily-use medications are poor solutions because they gradually lose effectiveness over time. Keeping medication on hand as a “lifeline” in case a severe panic attack gets out of hand might be a decent option for some. However, in the long-term, I believe it’s better to address the cause of your panic attacks head-on.  

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About the Author

Years of personal experience with anxiety disorders and panic attacks have led me to devise some pretty creative ways to keep my anxiety in check. In the past, anxiety and panic attacks felt like something I'd have to live with forever. Nowadays, panic attacks are a distant memory for me, and I'm free to pursue passions like writing and traveling the world. Hopefully, the information on this website can help you achieve the same. I do all the writing here myself, so don't hesitate to reach out with questions!

Tyler Ellis

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