Am I Having a Panic Attack?

One in 4 Americans has had a panic attack at some point.  Panic is scary, exhausting, and potentially embarrassing - that’s the bad news.  The good news? Treatment for panic is straightforward and effective.  The Savvy Psychologist helps you get a handle on the 3 levels of panic.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #46

What Is Panic Disorder?

In 2012, pro golfer Charlie Beljans had a panic attack during a tournament but, in a sports miracle, went on to win.  Referring to his first time stepping back on the course after the attack, Beljans was quoted as saying, “I was crying on the range because I was so afraid these feelings would come back.”

This is the definition of panic disorder - being afraid of having another panic attack. Quite literally, all you have to fear is fear itself. Four percent of Americans - 1 in 25 - have had panic disorder at some point in their lives. 

How can you tell if you’ve moved from run of the mill panic and to the next level of panic disorder? Look for these 4 signs:

Sign #1: You focus intently on internal sensations.  You might scan your body to make sure everything is OK, perhaps testing yourself to make sure you can breathe, drinking something to prove you can swallow, taking your pulse to check your heart rate.

Sign #2: You then interpret internal sensations as a sign of danger. “Is that ok?”  “What does that pain mean?”  “That twinge didn’t feel right.”

Sign #3: You alter your activity or exertion as a result. “I’d better slow down.”  “I need to lie down.”  “Maybe I’ll just put my head between my knees for a minute.”

Sign #4: Over time, you may start doing what’s called “safety behaviors,” like sitting near the exit in a movie or keeping your spouse on speed-dial.  Or, you may decide to carry what’s called a ”safety signal” everywhere you go - an object you think will keep you safe or prepared for a panic attack.  Safety signals might include pills prescribed for panic, a bottle of water to drink and prove your throat isn’t closing, your cell phone ready to call 911.  Others may use a location as a safety signal - you may go home at first sign of panic, or to the hospital, even if you just sit in the parking lot or the waiting room “just in case.”  You may even use another person as a safety signal - making sure you’re never alone.

My colleague, the House Call Doctor, did a terrific episode on panic disorder, so make sure to check that out for more information about this debilitating condition.

What Is Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia?

Finally, 1% of individuals have experienced panic disorder with agoraphobia - that is, fear and avoidance of situations where escape or help might not be possible in the case of a panic attack.

Agoraphobia is diagnosed if you avoid situations because you’re afraid you might have a panic attack that will leave you trapped and humiliated.  For example, many folks with panic and agoraphobia avoid crowds or holiday shopping because they’re worried they might have a panic attack.  Likewise for traveling on public transportation, airplanes, or going over bridges or through tunnels.  Enclosed spaces like movie theaters are often avoided, as are wide open spaces like parking lots.  These individuals might give up driving or in extreme cases may even be housebound.

See also: The Science of Agoraphobia


So there’s our rundown of the 3 levels of panic: panic attacks, panic disorder, and panic disorder with agoraphobia.  Next week, we’ll cover how you can effectively fight back against all three conditions and get your life back on track.


Kessler, R.C., Chiu, W.T., Jin, R., Ruscio, A.M., Shear, K. & Walters, E.E. (2006).  The epidemiology of panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.  Archives of General Psychiatry, 63, 415-424.

Panic and stress box image courtesy of Shutterstock.



Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.