Lauren Stevenson, PsyD., Director
Pasadena, CA

Capstone Psychological Services

What is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is characterized by sudden attacks of fear or terror, usually accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a pounding heart, shortness of breath, sweatiness, weakness, faintness, or dizziness. During these attacks, people with panic disorder may flush or feel chilled; their hands may tingle or feel numb; and they may experience nausea, chest pain, or smothering sensations. Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control.

A fear of one’s own unexplained physical symptoms is also a symptom of panic disorder. People having panic attacks sometimes believe they are having heart attacks, losing their minds, or on the verge of death. People commonly experience the onset of panic attacks when they are afraid and repeatedly focused on the fear that a panic attack will occur. Such individuals fear that having a panic attack in their current situation would cause them embarrassment or difficulty escaping should an attack occur. Most people can’t predict when or where an attack will occur, and between episodes many worry intensely and dread the next attack.

Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep. An attack usually peaks within 10 minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer.

(National Institute of Mental Health)


Treatment Approach

Treatment for Panic Disorder focuses on helping clients learn how to retrain their body to respond to anxiety. Panic attacks are actually a series of anxiety symptoms (i.e., rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, upset stomach, choking sensation, ect) that a person misinterprets as an catastrophic or dangerous.

CBT treatment focuses on helping the client learn how their own thoughts, usually about the unbearable nature of experiencing anxiety, actually leads to the panic attacks themselves. Specific therapeutic approaches, such as exposure therapy and interoceptive therapy are used to help retrain a client's ability to interpret anxiety and situations that trigger anxiety more accurately. Techniques are then learned to take control and manage those sensations effectively, thereby reducing or eliminating the occurrence of panic attacks.

National Institute of Mental Health Link

Panic Disorder


Panic Disorder