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Glossary of Terms

Panic attack

General public definition

  • Panic attack is currently not a diagnosis in the DSM-5-TR or ICD-11. It is a group of symptoms that can be part of a diagnosis of a panic disorder.
  • Panic attacks can occur “out of the blue,” for apparently no reason, or can be triggered by a feared situation.
  • Panic attack symptoms include shortness of breath, racing heart, chest pain or pressure, sweating, shakiness, nausea, dizziness, numbness/tingling sensations, feelings of unreality, and fear of losing control or of dying.
  • Symptoms usually start abruptly and intensify quickly.
  • Panic attacks are extremely frightening and can cause a great deal of disability if they occur repeatedly and are not treated.
  • Treatment with both psychotherapy and medication is very effective.

Academic definition

  • Panic attack is currently not listed as a diagnosis in either the DSM-5-TR or the ICD-11. It is a characteristic group of symptoms that can be part of a diagnosis of a panic disorder.
  • The DSM-5-TR defines a panic attack as a sudden rush of intense fear and discomfort that peaks rapidly and is associated with characteristic physical and cognitive symptoms. The DSM-5-TR specifies a minimum of four symptoms, which may include:
    • physiological sensations (palpitations, sweating, shakiness, shortness of breath, feelings of choking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, numbness/tingling sensations, feelings of derealization/depersonalization), or
    • cognitions (fear of losing control or fear of dying).
  • If fewer than four symptoms are present, the episode is classified as a limited-symptom panic attack.
  • A panic attack is not a mental disorder on its own. If it meets a number of criteria, it can be classified as a panic disorder, which is a discrete mental disorder. Panic attacks may occur in the context of any mental or medical disorder, although they are most commonly associated with anxiety disorders. When panic attacks are present, they are noted as a specifier to the diagnosed disorder, with the exception of panic disorder, where the presence of panic attacks is a central criterion for diagnosis.
  • The ICD-11 describes a panic attack as an episode of “intense fear,” characterized by a rush of physical symptoms (e.g. palpitations, chest pain, feelings of choking, dizziness, feelings of unreality), and/or cognitive symptoms that include fear of dying, losing control, or “going mad.”10 The ICD-11 notes that panic attacks are a feature of panic disorder.
  • Panic attacks may occur unexpectedly, or “out of the blue.” Alternatively, they may occur because of exposure to a feared situation or trigger (e.g. an individual with a snake phobia may develop a panic attack in response to seeing a picture of a snake).
  • Untreated, recurring panic attacks can be extremely disabling.
  • Treatment of panic attacks with both medication and psychotherapy is very effective.

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