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What’s The Difference Between Panic Disorder & Panic Attacks?

What’s The Difference Between Panic Disorder & Panic Attacks?

If you’ve experienced intense moments of fear or discomfort out of the blue, you may wonder if you have panic disorder or if you’re just experiencing panic attacks. While the terms may seem interchangeable, they actually have distinct definitions, symptoms, and treatment approaches. In this article, we’ll explore the differences between panic disorder and panic attacks, so you can better understand your own experiences and seek the appropriate support.

Defining Panic Disorder & Panic Attacks

What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by frequent and unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden surge of intense fear or discomfort that peaks within minutes and can include a combination of physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms.

People with panic disorder not only experience recurrent panic attacks, but also worry about having another one or the consequences of one. This fear and avoidance can lead to significant impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning.

It is estimated that panic disorder affects approximately 2-3% of the general population, with women being twice as likely to be affected as men. Panic disorder can develop at any age, but it typically begins in late adolescence or early adulthood.

While the exact causes of panic disorder are not fully understood, research suggests that a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors may contribute to its development. For example, studies have found that people with panic disorder have differences in the way their brains regulate the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a role in anxiety and mood disorders.

What Is A Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a discrete episode of intense and sudden anxiety that reaches a peak within minutes. The symptoms can include:

  • Rapid heartbeat or pounding heart
  • Shortness of breath or feeling smothered
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling faint
  • Sweating or chills
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling of unreality or detachment from oneself
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying

These symptoms may occur in various combinations or variations, but they must be unexpected, coming “out of the blue” without an apparent trigger or in response to a perceived threat. Panic attacks can also be limited to specific situations, such as social situations or driving, and then be diagnosed as a specific phobia or agoraphobia.

While panic attacks can be extremely distressing, they are not dangerous and do not pose a threat to one’s physical health. However, the fear of having another panic attack can lead to avoidance behaviors, which can interfere with daily life and contribute to the development of panic disorder.

Treatment for panic disorder typically involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed medications for panic disorder. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and develop coping strategies for managing panic attacks.

Symptoms & Characteristics

Symptoms Of Panic Disorder

In addition to the symptoms of panic attacks, which are the hallmark of panic disorder, individuals may have other symptoms related to anxiety, such as:

  • Constant worry about future panic attacks
  • Anxiety or distress about the physical sensations associated with panic attacks
  • Avoidance of places or situations where previous panic attacks occurred or where escape might be difficult or embarrassing
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Depressive symptoms

These symptoms may develop gradually or abruptly, and can vary in severity and frequency depending on the individual. Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with panic disorder, and the age of onset is usually in the late teens to mid-30s.

Symptoms Of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can be brief but intense experiences that can leave lasting emotional and physical effects. The symptoms of panic attacks may include:

  • Heart palpitations or chest pain
  • Sweating or chills
  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Hot flashes or cold flashes
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
  • Nausea, stomach upset, or diarrhea
  • Feeling of impending doom or danger
  • Difficulty swallowing or speaking

It’s important to note that panic attacks can mimic symptoms of other physical or mental health conditions, so it’s essential to seek a professional evaluation to rule out any underlying medical issues.

Comparing The Symptoms

While panic attacks and panic disorder share some symptoms, there are some key differences between the two.

Panic attacks are brief and typically last for about 10 minutes, while panic disorder involves persistent and recurrent episodes of panic attacks for at least one month.

Panic attacks tend to have a sudden onset and can occur without warning, while panic disorder often includes anticipatory anxiety about having another panic attack or the consequences of one.

Panic disorder can lead to avoidance behaviors, where individuals limit their exposure to situations that may trigger a panic attack, while panic attacks may be limited to specific triggering situations, such as phobias or social anxiety.

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes Of Panic Disorder

The exact cause of panic disorder is still unknown, but it’s believed to result from a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Some possible causes or risk factors of panic disorder may include:

  • History of trauma or abuse
  • Family history of anxiety or panic disorders
  • Changes in brain function or neurotransmitters
  • Chronic stress or anxiety
  • Smoking or drug abuse
  • Major life transitions or events

While panic disorder may be triggered by external stressors or triggers, it’s not necessarily caused by them alone. Rather, panic disorder may arise from the interaction between vulnerability factors and precipitating factors that converge to produce panic attacks and disorder.

Causes Of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can occur in response to a variety of triggers or stressors, or seemingly out of the blue. Some common causes or triggers of panic attacks may include:

  • High levels of stress or anxiety
  • Vigorous exercise or physical activity
  • Caffeine or other stimulants
  • Drug use or withdrawal
  • certain medical conditions or medications
  • Feeling trapped or unable to escape
  • Phobias or social anxiety

Not everyone who experiences a trigger or stressor will develop panic attacks, and not everyone who has panic attacks necessarily has panic disorder.

Shared Risk Factors

Both panic disorder and panic attacks share some common risk factors, which include:

  • Female gender
  • Family history of anxiety or panic disorders
  • Depression or other mental health conditions
  • Chronic stress or trauma
  • Smoking or drug abuse
  • General medical conditions or health problems

Understanding these risk factors and their interactions can help inform prevention and treatment strategies for panic disorder and panic attacks.

Diagnosis & Assessment

Diagnosing Panic Disorder

Diagnosing panic disorder typically involves a comprehensive evaluation that includes a review of medical and psychiatric history, a physical exam, and a psychological assessment. The diagnostic criteria for panic disorder include:

  • Recurrent unexpected panic attacks
  • Worry or fear of having another panic attack or the consequences of one
  • Significant change in behavior related to panic attacks
  • At least one month of persistent concern or worry about panic attacks or their consequences
  • The symptoms are not better accounted for by another medical condition, mental disorder, or substance use

A healthcare provider may also use certain rating scales or questionnaires, such as the Panic Disorder Severity Scale or the Panic and Agoraphobia Scale, to aid in diagnosis and assessment.

Diagnosing Panic Attacks

Diagnosing panic attacks may involve a similar evaluation process, but the criteria for panic attacks are more specific and focused on the most recent episode. The diagnostic criteria for panic attacks include:

  • Sudden onset of intense fear or discomfort
  • Peaking within minutes
  • At least four of the listed physical or cognitive symptoms
  • The symptoms are not better accounted for by another medical condition, mental disorder, or substance use

A professional evaluation can help rule out other possible causes for the symptoms and determine the appropriate treatment plan.

Ketamine Therapy for Panic Disorder

Ketamine therapy has shown effectiveness in treating panic disorder and panic attacks. It is an anesthetic drug that targets the brain’s glutamate receptors, which regulate anxiety. Research indicates that ketamine can rapidly reduce symptoms of panic disorder and provide relief during panic attacks.

The therapy involves controlled administration of ketamine in a medical setting, typically through intravenous infusion or nasal spray. It is often used alongside traditional therapies and medications, especially for individuals who have not responded well to conventional treatments.


At Neuropsychiatric Treatment Center or NTX, a leading ketamine infusion clinic, we understand the challenges of panic disorder and panic attacks. Seek help from our qualified mental health professionals who will provide an accurate diagnosis, personalized treatment plan, and ongoing support.

Our experienced clinicians are here to help through the recovery and healing process. Contact NTX today and take the first step towards a brighter future.

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