In panic disorder, a person suffers from brief attacks of intense terror and apprehension that cause trembling and shaking, confusion, dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing, and feelings of impending doom or a situation that would be embarrassing. One who is often plagued by sudden bouts of intense anxiety might be said to be afflicted by this disorder. The American Psychiatric Association (2000) defines a panic attack as fear or discomfort that arises abruptly and peaks in 10 minutes or less, and can occasionally last hours.
Although panic attacks sometimes seem to occur out of nowhere, they generally happen after frightening experiences, prolonged stress, or even exercise. Many people who have panic attacks (especially their first one) think they are having a heart attack and often end up at the doctor or emergency room. Even if the tests all come back normal the person will still worry, with the physical manifestations of anxiety only reinforcing their fear that something is wrong with their body. Heightened awareness (hypervigilance) of any change in the normal function of the human body will be noticed and interpreted as a possible life threatening illness by an individual suffering from panic attacks.
Normal changes in heartbeat, such as when climbing a flight of stairs will be noticed by a panic sufferer and lead them to think something is wrong with their heart or they are about to have another panic attack. Some begin to worry excessively and even quit jobs or refuse to leave home to avoid future attacks. Panic disorder can be diagnosed when several apparently spontaneous attacks lead to a persistent concern about future attacks.