Understanding the Difference Between a Panic Attack and Panic Disorder

Around 4.7% of people in the United States have suffered from one or more panic attacks at some point in the past. Panic attacks can be frightening, especially if you have not experienced one. These episodes are not to be confused with a panic disorder. These conditions have a lot in common but can differ significantly.

Learn how to distinguish between a panic attack and a panic disorder, spot the signs, and what treatment options are available.

What You Need to Know About a Panic Attack

The thing about a panic attack is that it is not a constant problem. Panic attacks only last relatively short periods, perhaps for a few minutes or an hour or two. Then, the panic attack will fade, and the person experiencing that attack will start to calm down. A panic attack can happen to anyone, not just those who suffer from a mental health disorder. A panic attack can happen for a variety of reasons. It usually is triggered by some kind of stressful event.

For example, a person may have a panic attack if they find out they have experienced a devastating setback or received bad news. When a large and stressful event like this happens, it will cause an anxious reaction in the form of a panic attack. 

Keep in mind that not everyone experiences a panic attack in reaction to a stressful event. People respond to information differently, so whatever the case, a panic attack can cause a variety of symptoms. 

Panic Attack Symptoms

Heart palpitations are one of the most common symptoms of panic attacks. Sometimes, a person might think they are having a heart attack due to the heart palpitations or pain they may experience. Some describe the feeling as a fist squeezing or crushing their heart. Another common symptom is heavy, quick, and uncontrolled breathing, which can be quite a serious symptom since it may cause the person to pass out.

A panic attack can cause very acute experiences of anxiety and fear. Fortunately, these symptoms usually go away on their own. A person may experience one or two panic attacks throughout their entire life. However, a person who frequently experiences panic attacks may have a mental health condition. 

What You Need to Know About Panic Disorders

A panic disorder is different than a panic attack. The main difference is that a panic disorder is not an acute experience but, instead, often a chronic problem. The problem may infiltrate every aspect of life and make it challenging to lead an enjoyable life. A panic disorder may prevent individuals from making new friends, forming relationships, and otherwise going out into the world and experiencing it as everyone else does. 

The disorder may compel the person to stay at home most of the time and withdraw from social interactions. There are other types of panic disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Panic Disorder Symptoms

People experiencing a panic disorder may suffer from poor appetite, stomach cramping, feelings of fear or stress, rapid heart rate, sweating, and more. Some people with panic disorder may feel disconnected from reality. People with panic disorders are more likely to experience panic attacks more frequently than those without this disorder. 

A person with this disorder may have panic attacks regularly, such as once a month or, in some severe cases, even more frequently than that. Fortunately, treatment such as medication or therapy can be a big help. 

Seeking Help

A panic attack is an acute experience of panic, fear, and doom that lasts for a brief period. On the other hand, panic disorder is more of a persistent and even chronic problem that can greatly affect a person’s life.  Learn more about mental health treatment and find out what we offer. 

Medically Reviewed: November 22, 2022

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer | CWC Recovery Staff

Clinical Team

About

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Content on this page has been reviewed by CWC Medical Staff for accuracy.


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

WE'RE READY TO HELP YOU BEGIN A NEW LIFE