Panic Attacks (Panic Disorder)

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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Are panic attacks serious?

Yes, panic attacks are real and potentially quite emotionally disabling. Fortunately, they can be controlled with specific treatments. Because of the disturbing physical signs and symptoms that accompany panic attacks, they may be mistaken for heart attacks or some other life-threatening medical illness. In fact, up to 25% of people who visit emergency rooms because of chest pain are actually experiencing panic. As a result, people with this symptom often undergo extensive medical testing to rule out these other conditions. Sadly, sometimes more than 90% of these individuals are not appropriately diagnosed as suffering from panic.

Loved ones as well as medical personnel generally attempt to reassure the panic attack sufferer that he or she is not in great danger. But these efforts at reassurance can sometimes add to the patient's difficulties. If the doctors use expressions such as "nothing serious," "all in your head," or "nothing to worry about," this may give the incorrect impression that there is no real problem, that they should be able to overcome their symptoms on their own, and that treatment is not possible or necessary. The point is that while panic attacks can certainly be serious, they are not organ-threatening. Therefore, for individuals who might wonder what to do to help the panic sufferer at the time of an anxiety attack, a more effective approach tends to be to acknowledge their fear and the intensity of their symptoms while reassuring the person having the panic attack that what is occurring is not life-threatening and can be treated.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/29/2015

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