What doctor treats panic attacks?

Panic attacks can be a scary and disruptive experience. They often come on suddenly and can cause intense physical and psychological symptoms like a racing heart, chest tightness, dizziness, sweating, tingling sensations, and fears of losing control or dying. While panic attacks themselves aren’t dangerous, having recurrent attacks can really impact your quality of life. Fortunately, there are doctors who specialize in treating panic attacks and the conditions that cause them.

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear or discomfort that reach a peak within minutes. The symptoms of a panic attack typically include:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Feeling weak, faint, or dizzy
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers
  • Sense of terror, fear of losing control or dying
  • Chest pains
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Feeling sweaty or having chills
  • Nausea
  • Trembling or shaking

Panic attacks can be terrifying. Many people experiencing one for the first time visit the emergency room, fearing they are having a heart attack or other life-threatening medical issue. But panic attacks themselves aren’t physically dangerous, even if the symptoms are similar to more serious conditions.

What causes panic attacks?

There are a few primary causes of panic attacks:

Panic disorder

People with panic disorder experience recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and worry a lot about having another attack. Avoiding places, situations, or behaviors where panic attacks have occurred before is common. Panic disorder affects about 2-3% of Americans.

Other anxiety disorders

Panic attacks can also occur in other anxiety disorders like agoraphobia (fear of places or situations where escape might be difficult) and social anxiety disorder. Phobias around certain objects, activities, or situations can also trigger panic attacks.

Medical conditions or substance use

Certain medical conditions that affect breathing, brain chemistry, or the thyroid gland can contribute to panic attacks. Withdrawal from substances like alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine can also cause panic attacks.


Times of extreme stress, emotional turmoil, trauma, or grieving can trigger panic attacks, even in people without an anxiety disorder diagnosis.

What types of doctors treat panic attacks?

There are a few different types of doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating panic attacks:


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health conditions like anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, and addictions. They can diagnose mental health conditions, prescribe and manage medications, and provide different types of psychotherapy.


Psychologists have doctoral degrees (PhD or PsyD) and advanced training in diagnosing mental health disorders through psychological testing. They provide different types of psychotherapy but cannot prescribe medication.

Licensed therapists

Licensed therapists include licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), licensed mental health counselors (LMHC), and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT). With master’s degrees and thousands of hours of supervised clinical work, they provide counseling and psychotherapy for conditions like panic disorder.

Primary care physicians

While primary care physicians (family medicine doctors, internists, pediatricians, etc.) do not specialize in mental health, they can prescribe anti-anxiety medications and refer patients to mental health professionals for therapy. They can also check for underlying medical conditions that might contribute to anxiety.

Doctor Type Can Diagnose Can Prescribe Medication Can Provide Therapy
Psychiatrist Yes Yes Yes
Psychologist Yes No Yes
Therapist No No Yes
Primary Care Physician No Yes (limited) No

How are panic attacks diagnosed?

Accurately diagnosing a panic attack involves:

  • Medical exam: To check for underlying conditions like thyroid disorders, heart problems, or breathing issues that could cause anxiety symptoms.
  • Screening tools: You’ll be asked to fill out questionnaires about your symptoms and fears to help identify an anxiety disorder.
  • Discussion: Your doctor will ask about your attack symptoms, triggers, family history, substance use, and other factors.
  • Diagnostic criteria: Your doctor will assess your symptoms against criteria for conditions like panic disorder to make a diagnosis.

Getting an accurate diagnosis is important, as the treatments can differ between panic disorder, other anxiety issues, and medical causes.

How are panic attacks treated?

Treatment for panic attacks usually involves:


Therapy approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are very effective for panic disorder. You’ll learn techniques to change negative thought patterns around fear, manage anxiety, prevent panicking, and address agoraphobia or other phobias.


Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), benzodiazepines, and tricyclic antidepressants are used to reduce anxiety symptoms, prevent panic attacks, and improve moods. Medication is usually combined with therapy.

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation training like deep breathing, meditation, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation can help control panic attacks as they start and lower overall anxiety.

Exposure therapy

Facing feared situations in a graduated, controlled way under a therapist’s guidance can help overcome agoraphobia, phobias, and avoidance linked to panic attacks.

Stress management

Learning better ways to manage stress through lifestyle changes, support groups, proper rest and diet, organization skills, and boundaries can also minimize panic attack frequency.

When to see a doctor

It’s a good idea to see a doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • You have your first panic attack and are unsure of the cause
  • You have recurrent, unexpected panic attacks
  • Your panic attacks are increasing in frequency or intensity
  • You’re fearful of having another attack
  • You have agoraphobia or avoid certain places/activities because of panic attacks
  • Your panic attacks interfere significantly with school, work or relationships
  • You’re abusing alcohol or drugs to cope with anxiety symptoms
  • You have thoughts of harming yourself because of panic attacks

An accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment can help you take back control over your life.

Choosing the right doctor for panic attacks

The best doctor for you depends on your specific needs. Consider the following:

  • Coverage: Check which mental health providers are covered under your insurance plan.
  • Medications: See a psychiatrist or primary care doctor if you think you may need medications.
  • Therapy focus: Choose a therapist with expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, etc.
  • Holistic care: See a doctor open to complementary approaches like supplements, exercise, meditation, etc. alongside conventional treatment.
  • Comfort level: The right doctor-patient rapport is key. Don’t be afraid to switch providers until you find the best fit.

You may need to work with both a psychiatrist for medications and a therapist for strategies to cope with panic attacks. Close communication between providers is ideal for coordinated care.

Questions to ask your doctor

Here are some questions to ask at your first appointment to guide your panic attack treatment:

  • What’s likely causing my panic attacks?
  • Do I meet the criteria for a specific anxiety disorder?
  • Do I need any medical tests to check for underlying conditions?
  • Would medications help reduce my panic attack frequency?
  • What type of therapy do you recommend?
  • Are there any relaxation techniques or lifestyle changes that could help?
  • How can I better manage stress and fears of having another attack?
  • How long will it take to get my panic attacks under control?
  • What should I do if I start having another panic attack?

Don’t be afraid to ask anything that’s on your mind. The more information you can give your doctor, the better they can tailor treatment to your needs.

Finding support for panic attacks

In addition to doctors, having a strong support system can be invaluable in overcoming panic attacks. Consider reaching out to:

  • Family and friends: Confide in trusted loved ones who can offer emotional support and accountability.
  • Support groups: Connect with other panic attack sufferers in-person or online to share advice.
  • Crisis hotlines: Call a free hotline if you’re having severe anxiety and need to talk to someone immediately.
  • Online forums: Anonymously read about others’ experiences overcoming panic attacks.
  • Therapy groups: Group therapy can help you realize you’re not alone and learn from others.

While doctors provide the treatment plan, support from people who understand what you’re going through is invaluable during recovery.


Living with recurrent panic attacks can feel debilitating, but various doctors specialize in accurately diagnosing and treating this condition. With a combination of therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, relaxation techniques, and adequate support, most people with panic disorder can reduce their attacks and regain control of their lives. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions to best manage this condition.

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