Panic disorder is where you have recurring and regular panic attacks, often for no apparent reason.

Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety and panic at certain times during their lifetime. It's a natural response to stressful ordangerous situations.

However, for someone with panic disorder, feelings of anxiety, stress and panic occur regularly and at any time.


Anxiety is a feeling of unease. It can range from mild to severe and can include feelings of worry and fear.

There are several conditions that can cause severe anxiety including

  • Phobias an extreme or irrational fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal
  • generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) a long-term condition that causes excessive anxiety and worry relating to a variety of situations
  • post-traumatic stress disorder a condition with psychological and physical symptoms caused by distressing or frightening events

Panic attacks

A panic attack occurs when your body experiences a rush of intense psychological (mental) and physical symptoms.

You may experience an overwhelming sense of fear, apprehension and anxiety. As well as these feelings, you may also have physical symptoms such as:

  • nausea
  • sweating
  • trembling
  • a sensation that your heart is beating irregularly ( palpitations )

The number of panic attacks you have will depend on how severe your condition is. Some people may have one or two attacks each month, while others may have several attacks a week.

An attack won't cause you any physical harm, and it's unlikely that you'll be admitted to hospital if you've had a panic attack.

What causes panic disorder?

As with many mental health conditions, the exact cause of panic disorder isn't fully understood.

However, it's thought the condition is probably linked to a combination of physical and psychological factors.

Read about the possible causes of panic disorder .

Its important to be aware that some physical conditions and disorders can have similar symptoms to those of anxiety. For example:

  • mitral valve prolapse
  • postural orthostatic tachycardic syndrome (POTS)
  • anaemia
  • paroxysmal atrial tachycardia episodes of rapid and regular heartbeats that begin and end abruptly
  • thyrotoxicosis where large amounts of thyroid hormones are released into the bloodstream, causing rapid heartbeat, sweating , tremor and anxiety
  • poorly controlled diabetes
  • adrenal tumours growths that develop on the adrenal glands (two triangular-shaped glands that form part of the kidneys)
  • carcinoid syndrome a set of symptoms caused by some carcinoid tumours that can develop in the cells of the endocrine system (glands that produce and secrete hormones)
  • Zollinger-Ellison syndrome causes overproduction of insulin and low blood sugar ( hypoglycaemia )

Diagnosing panic disorder

See your GP if you have symptoms of anxiety or panic disorder (see above).

You may be diagnosed with panic disorder if you experience recurrent and unexpected panic attacks followed by at least one month of continuous worry or concern about having further attacks.

It's your legal obligation to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) about a medical condition that could have an impact on your driving ability.

GOV.UK has further information and advice about driving with a disability or health condition .

Complications of panic disorder

Panic disorder is treatable, but to make a full recovery it's important that you seek medical help as soon as possible. Treatment for panic disorder is much more effective if it's given at an early stage.

Left untreated, panic disorder can become a very debilitating and isolating illness. It can also increase your risk of developing other mental health conditions, such as agoraphobia or other phobias .

Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult, or help wouldn't be available if things go wrong.

To panic is to be overcome with a feeling of fear or worry.
Mental refers to the processes in the mind.
Nausea is when you feel like you are going to be sick.
The heart is a muscular organ. Its function is to pump blood around the body.
Palpitations refer to an irregular heartbeat, or the sensation of skipped or extra heartbeats.
Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 20 Jun 2016