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What Is Panic Disorder?

Our ‘What Is … ?’ series is a collection of one-page information handouts for common mental health conditions. Friendly and explanatory, handouts in the series describe how it can feel to struggle with a difficulty and are reliable sources of information for your clients. Drawing upon established cognitive behavioral models, each handout has a particular focus on maintaining factors that might prevent the problem from getting better. What Is Panic Disorder? is designed to help clients with panic attacks and panic disorder to understand more about their condition.

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A PDF of the resource, theoretical background, suggested therapist questions and prompts.

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A PDF of the resource plus client-friendly instructions where appropriate.

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Languages this resource is available in

  • Chinese (Simplified)
  • English (GB)
  • English (US)
  • Greek
  • Vietnamese

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Introduction & Theoretical Background

A panic attack is a sudden surge of intense fear which is accompanied by strong body feelings (such as your heart beating rapidly, or finding it hard to breathe) and catastrophic thoughts (such as thinking that you will lose control or die). Panic attacks feel terrifying, but they are not dangerous. People who worry about their panic, and who take steps to try to prevent the possibility of having more, are said to suffer from panic disorder. It is thought that between 1 and 3 people out of every 100 will experience panic disorder every year and many more than that will have a panic attack at least once. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an extremely effective treatment for panic disorder: about 80% of people with panic disorder who complete a course of CBT are panic-free at the end of treatment. 

The What Is Panic? information handout is designed to help clients with panic attacks and panic disorder understand more about their condition. It includes:

  • A summary of the most common symptoms of panic attacks and panic disorder.
  • Descriptions of what it can feel like to have panic attacks and panic disorder.
  • A description of why panic disorder might not get better by itself, derived from the Clark (1986) cognitive model of panic.
  • A brief overview of evidence-based psychological treatments for panic attacks and panic disorder.

Therapist Guidance

Our ‘What Is … ?’ series is designed to support your clients:

  • Reassure and encourage optimism. Many clients find it hugely reassuring to know there is a name for what they are experiencing, and that there are evidence-based psychological models and treatments specifically designed to help.
  • Scaffold knowledge. The handouts are perfect during early stages of therapy to help your clients understand how their symptoms fit together and make sense.
  • Signposting. If you’re just seeing a client briefly for assessment, or you have a curious client who wants to know more, these resources can be a helpful part of guiding them to the right service.

References And Further Reading

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
  • Clark, D. M. (1986). A cognitive approach to panic. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 24(4), 461-470.
  • Kessler, R. C., Chiu, W. T., Demler, O., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Prevalence, severity, and co- morbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), 617-627.
  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2011). Generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults: management. Retrieved from:
  • Rees, R., Stokes, G., Stansfield, C., Oliver, E., Kneale, D., & Thomas, J. (2016). Prevalence of mental health disorders in adult minority ethnic populations in England: a systematic review. Department of Health.
  • World Health Organization. (2019). ICD-11:International classification of diseases (11th revision). Retrieved from