What’s the Difference Between a Panic Attack and Panic Disorder?

Panic attacks can be dangerous: While panic attacks are brief—lasting anywhere from five minutes to a few hours—if they increase in frequency, the attacks can turn into panic disorder. 

Leo’s first panic attack hit him like a thunderbolt. One morning when he was 16 years old, he woke up feeling dizzy, his heart pounding. He tried to catch his breath as anxiety coursed through him. It was his first panic attack, but not his last.

During Leo’s panic attack, he experienced a rush of feelings and thoughts he felt powerless to control. That lack of control made him even more anxious and intensified the panic attack. It’s a feeling familiar to many people: About 11% of people in America have a panic attack each year. For some people, a panic attack can be a sign of another mental health issue such as anxiety or depression.

What are the signs of a panic attack? And what is a panic attack vs. a panic disorder? Knowing this information can help people identify if they are having an attack and what they can do about it. 

The Signs of a Panic Attack

The fight-or-flight response is the body’s alarm system. It’s triggered when danger is nearby, sending the body into high alert with a rush of adrenaline. An elevated heart rate, heavy breathing, sweating and increased blood flow are a few symptoms of this stress response.

As Leo shared, these are the same symptoms experienced during a panic attack. Clinician Eric Zaizar, in talking about Leo’s situation, described a panic attack as a sudden rush of fear or feeling of imminent danger where no threat exists.

Because there’s no immediate threat, it’s unknown what actually triggers a panic attack. Intense stress, genetic disposition and changes in cognitive function are all thought to be potential causes of panic attacks. A family history of panic attacks, trauma or childhood abuse may be potential risk factors.

Panic attacks are brief, cresting in intensity after about 10 minutes. People generally feel exhausted after a panic attack because it’s so physically taxing. The attacks aren’t fatal, though Zaizar said many people mistake a panic attack for a heart attack because of the suddenness and severity of the symptoms. In addition to the signs mentioned above, a panic attack may include:

  • Hot or cold sensations throughout the body
  • Nausea or stomach cramps
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • A faint feeling
  • Numbness
  • Feeling out of place, like the experience is unreal

Some people only have one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes. For others, however, panic attacks develop into something more. That’s when the difference between panic disorder and panic attack becomes apparent.

Panic Attack vs. Panic Disorder

When someone has a panic attack, they may begin anxiously anticipating another one, Zaizar said. If this fear goes on for a sustained period of time, or panic attacks keep occurring, this is considered panic disorder. About 6 million American adults have a panic disorder, and it affects twice as many women as men.

Panic disorder can be debilitating in daily life. The fear of an attack can inhibit people from carrying out their normal activities. They may call in sick to school or work or just avoid places that could be triggering. Unsure why they feel this way, some people may spend a lot of time and money on doctor’s visits trying to pinpoint what’s wrong, while others don’t say a word to anyone, intensifying their feelings of isolation. The frustration of living with panic disorder can lead to problems with relationships, finances or substance abuse. Finally, the disorder can contribute to other mental health conditions such as depression or phobias including agoraphobia, the fear of being entrapped, usually in a public space. 

When someone with panic disorder understands what it is and has the courage to verbalize it, they are taking the first step towards treatment. That is the positive aspect of panic disorder—it can be treated, just like other anxiety disorders. This is usually a two-pronged approach consisting of therapy and medication.

Antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are usually prescribed to reduce or eliminate panic disorder symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven effective in addressing panic disorder, Zaizar said. That includes patient education, identifying the inaccurate thoughts and emotions behind panic attacks and replacing them with positive ones and promoting relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises. These therapeutic tools help people identify the triggers for their panic attacks and learn how to face them. 

Exposure therapy is an important facet of panic disorder treatment. That’s when a person confronts the cause of their fear in a safe environment and guided by a therapist. When the person sees there is nothing to fear in the situation and works through the physical symptoms associated with a panic attack, their anxiety lessens, Zaizar said. He adds that it’s also empowering for someone to see they have the capability to confront the thing that scares them; they come out stronger from it because they are changing their relationship with their fear.

Leo’s panic attacks are under control. He was bold enough to tell people about them and he learned how to manage the attacks and change his thought patterns. He’s one of many people sharing his story on TAG. Viewers can watch videos of real people sharing their journeys and clinicians offering their insight into this mental health streaming service. It’s an innovative tool of therapy and healing with psychoeducation, but it’s also a place where people can come to better understand their own issues. It’s a safe space, without the stigmas that can surround mental health conditions. Visit TAG and watch Leo’s story about panic attacks. 

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