Panic disorder

Have you ever had a sudden fear of death or impending disaster? If you’ve had more than one of these attacks, you may have panic disorder. Find out how to treat this very real anxiety disorder to improve your quality of life.

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder, which is a category of mental illness that includes phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). 

A panic attack can occur spontaneously at any time and lasts for 10 minutes on average. During the attack, you feel uncontrollable fear and terror that you are about to die.

Panic attack symptoms can include:

  • feeling of suffocation (difficulty breathing)
  • dizziness or vertigo
  • fear of fainting
  • palpitations, fast heart rate or chest pressure
  • chills, sweating or hot flashes
  • nausea, upset stomach or diarrhea
  • tremors
  • dry mouth
  • fear of losing control or losing your mind
  • fear of having a heart attack or dying 

To be diagnosed with panic disorder, you must have recurrent panic attacks. You must also have had an ongoing worry about having more attacks for at least 1 month. People with panic disorder fear that their attacks will come back and try to avoid situations that may trigger them. 

A possible complication of this anxiety disorder is agoraphobia, or the fear of being in public places. This causes you to fear places where you can't get away if you have a panic attack, i.e., standing in line, being at a party or gathering, being on a bridge or in the metro, or taking an airplane.

If you have panic attacks, you must consult a doctor right away to make sure this condition doesn't affect your quality of life. A medical consultation will also confirm whether your problem is indeed panic attacks and not another medical condition, such as hyperthyroidism.

What causes panic attacks?

Although panic disorder has a genetic component, it is generally the result of a series of physical, psychological and environmental factors. It often starts after a period of stress, such as dealing with a job loss or the death of a loved one or adapting to a new environment. 

According to a number of studies, drugs such as cannabis can increase the risk of panic attacks. Regular smokers are also more likely to have panic attacks than non-smokers.

Panic attack treatment

Panic attacks are generally treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

  • Psychotherapy is essential and lets you better understand the source of your anxiety and develop tools to control it on a daily basis. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is proven to be effective for the treatment of anxiety disorders. This approach will help you recognize and change the thoughts or behaviour that are causing your anxiety.
  • Panic disorder is also related to an imbalance in neurotransmitters, or the chemical messengers of the nervous system that act on things like mood and stress. Antidepressant medications can restore this balance and help reduce anxiety. Antidepressants don’t just treat depression, as they can also help with anxiety disorders.

Treatment also includes a healthy lifestyle:

  • Exercise regularly (5 times a week for at least 30 minutes). Physical activity is known to reduce stress and anxiety and improve sleep quality.
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Limit your intake of caffeine and other stimulants as well as your intake of alcohol.
  • Don’t take recreational drugs.
  • Try to sleep at least 7 to 8 hours a night.
  • Do activities that help you relax (e.g., yoga, tai chi, meditation).

If you want more information about panic disorder and possible treatments, don’t hesitate to consult your doctor or pharmacist.

Association / Troubles de l’Humeur et d’Anxiété: 
Mental Illness Foundation: 


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