Difference Between Panic Attacks & A Panic Disorder

You had a bad experience as a child, and something triggered memories of the trauma. Suddenly, you begin to sweat and tremble. Within minutes, you’re breathing normally and feel better. But what if you didn’t, and it happened again? Was it a panic attack or a more serious panic disorder?

What is a panic attack?

“A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.”

You may rarely get them, and they normally subside when stress goes away. Panic attacks that happen frequently for years could be signs of a serious panic disorder.

Risk factors

Factors that could increase the chance of getting panic attacks or panic disorder include:

  • Some other family member, a first-degree relative, suffered panic attacks or panic disorder
  • Major life stressors, like the prolonged illness or death of a loved one
  • A traumatic event, like a car accident, mugging, or another serious incident
  • Major life changes, like marriage, divorce, or a new baby
  • Tobacco use or heavy caffeine consumption
  • History of some sort of childhood abuse

Difference Between Panic Attacks & A Panic Disorder

The major difference between panic attacks and a panic disorder is the frequency and duration of attacks, whether they happen over several years, and how they affect your quality of life. A panic attack resolves itself with little or no intervention, and has no lingering aftereffects. A panic disorder, however, has serious repercussions.

What is a panic disorder?

A panic disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health defines a panic disorder as “an anxiety disorder characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These episodes occur “out of the blue,” not in conjunction with a known fear or stressor.”

If you have a panic attack, you experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Sense of imminent doom or danger
  • You’re afraid of death or fear losing control
  • You have a fast, pounding heart rate
  • You sweat, tremble, or are jittery
  • You have stiffness in your throat or are short of breath 
  • You have chills, hot flashes, or feel like you’re going to vomit
  • Stomach cramping
  • You have chest pain and a headache
  • You may experience dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
  • You may have numbness or a tingling sensation in your body
  • You feel detached from reality or outside yourself

But sometimes, the symptoms can be treated with medicine like ketamine.

What causes a panic disorder?

We don’t know why certain people get panic attacks or develop panic disorder. The nervous system and brain play key parts in perception and how we handle fear and anxiety. The chances of you having panic attacks goes up if you have:

  • Family history. Experts believe that anxiety disorders, like panic disorders, often appear in families. If you have a biological relative with panic disorder, you may be predisposed the same way.
  • Mental health problems. Someone with anxiety disorders, depression, or another mental illness is more susceptible to panic attacks.

Substance abuse problems can also lead to getting a panic disorder. Drug and alcohol addiction can boost the chance of panic attacks.

Finally, age and gender play a role. Panic attacks normally first happen during teenage or early adulthood. But even children can suffer from panic attacks. Women, however, are two times as likely as men to get panic disorder.

Diagnosis & treatment

Your medical or mental healthcare provider can diagnose panic disorder. The condition may be diagnosed when there’s evidence of recurrent panic attacks and you:

  • Constantly worry about experiencing more panic attacks or their repercussions.
  • You obsess about losing control when a panic attack happens.
  • Alter your behaviors to side-step situations that can trigger a panic attack.

Typically, diagnosis involves: A physical examination to look for a medical reason for your symptoms, a psychiatric evaluation to identify the cause (emotions, thoughts, behaviors, or personal or family history), and compare your symptoms to diagnostic criteria. Treatment can involve psychotherapy, medicine, or ketamine.

Final thoughts

Many people have an occasional panic attack, but when its symptoms linger, affect your quality of life, and never go away, you may have developed a panic disorder. Thankfully, treatment exists to manage it. Ask your healthcare provider about the risks and benefits of ketamine, and whether it’s right for you.

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