Panic attacks and panic disorder are both serious issues that can cause disruption to a person’s life. While they are related, it’s important to understand the differences between them. The causes, symptoms, and treatments vary depending on the type of condition, so it’s critical to understand what is what, in order to be able to handle panic attacks and panic disorder in the most effective way possible.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
Research indicates that an individual’s genetics may be an important factor in the development of panic attacks. If a person has a family history of anxiety or panic attacks, they may be more likely to experience a panic attack or panic disorder at some point in their lives.
External factors such as stress, long-term medical conditions, or major life events can also trigger panic attacks. Trauma, change in environment, or physical withdrawal from drugs or alcohol can also be a trigger for a panic attack.
Neurochemical imbalance of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, can also cause panic attacks. This can be caused by overactivity in certain brain regions, such as the amygdala, or they may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the body.
Some studies have suggested that certain personality traits may make a person more likely to experience panic attacks. People who are more anxious by nature, those who are more prone to worrying, and those who are more sensitive to stress may be more likely to experience panic attacks.
What is Panic Disorder?
Panic disorder is a type of mental health condition that is characterized by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. It is also associated with significant distress or impairment in day-to-day functioning. It is estimated that between 2 and 3% of the general population experience panic disorder, and it is more common in women than in men.
In order to be diagnosed with panic disorder, a person must experience at least two unexpected panic attacks and at least one of the attacks must have been followed by at least one month of persistent fear or concern about having another attack. Additionally, the fear or concern must lead to avoidance of certain situations resulting in significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
In order to properly assess a person’s symptoms and determine whether or not they are experiencing panic disorder, a mental health professional will ask questions about their symptoms, medical history, and lifestyle. They may also recommend a physical exam or additional testing in order to rule out any medical conditions that could be causing the symptoms.
Comparing Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
Frequency of Attacks
The main difference between panic attacks and panic disorder is the frequency of the attacks. Panic attacks are typically a one-time occurrence, while panic disorder is characterized by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks.
Another key difference is that with panic disorder there is usually a persistent fear or concern about having another attack, which can lead to avoidance of certain situations and/or activities, resulting in significant distress or impairment in day-to-day functioning.
Finally, in order to be diagnosed with panic disorder, a person must meet the diagnostic criteria as set by the DSM-V. This includes having at least two unexpected panic attacks, and one of those attacks having been followed by at least one month of persistent fear or concern about having another attack.
Symptoms of Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
Common symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Feelings of unreality or detachment
- Fear of impending doom/loss of control
Common symptoms of panic disorder include:
- Recurrent, unexpected panic attacks
- Persistent fear or concern about having another attack
- Avoidance of certain situations due to fear of having another attack
- Significant distress or impairment in day-to-day functioning
- Excessive worrying about the implications of having a panic attack (such as health problems)
- Feelings of anxiety between panic attacks
Treating Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
Treatment for panic attacks typically involves addressing the underlying cause, such as stress, major life events, or physical withdrawal. Examples of treatment methods include cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication, relaxation techniques, and self-help strategies. In some cases, alternative therapies such as hypnosis and neurofeedback may also be helpful.
Treatment for panic disorder typically involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help a person learn strategies for managing the fear or concern between panic attacks, as well as helping them to identify and change any negative thoughts or beliefs that may be causing or contributing to the disorder. Medications such as SSRIs are often prescribed to help reduce the anxiety and frequency of the panic attacks.
Managing Panic Disorder Over Time
Maintain a Healthy Balance
It’s important to maintain a healthy balance in life to help manage panic disorder over time. This includes getting regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding any triggers for panic attacks.
Developing and practicing effective coping strategies can also help to manage panic disorder over time. Some common coping strategies include relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, or visualization. It can also be helpful to join a support group, talk to a mental health professional, or find activities that can help distract from the worries associated with the disorder.
Finally, for those who are prescribed medication for panic disorder, it is important to take it as prescribed and to be aware of any potential side effects. It is important to stay in regular contact with your doctor to monitor the effectiveness of the medication and to adjust the dosage if necessary.
Preventing Panic Disorder in Day-to-Day Life
One of the best ways to prevent panic disorder is to practice stress management. This can be done in a variety of ways including regular exercise, meditation, deep breathing, or yoga. It can also be helpful to talk to a mental health professional about any stressors in your life and develop ways to manage them.
It is also important to limit any known triggers for panic attacks. This includes avoiding any substances that increase the chance of a panic attack, such as caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol. It can also be helpful to develop a plan beforehand for how to manage a panic attack if it does occur.
Finally, it can be helpful to practice relaxation techniques on a daily basis. Examples include deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation. Additionally, knowing when to take breaks from activities or when to say no to certain obligations can help to prevent stress and anxiety from building up.
Seeking Professional Help for Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
Psychotherapy is an effective treatment for both panic attacks and panic disorder. A mental health professional can help to identify and address any underlying causes of the panic attacks, as well as develop and practice effective coping strategies. They can also work to address any negative thoughts or beliefs that may be contributing to the panic disorder.
For those with panic disorder, medication can be prescribed to help reduce the frequency and severity of the panic attacks. Examples of medications include SSRIs, benzodiazepines, and tricyclic antidepressants. It is important to work with your doctor or mental health professional to determine the best medication for your unique needs.
Finally, if you are having a panic attack, it is important to know where to seek help. It is best to talk to a mental health professional, but it can also be helpful to find emergency resources such as a crisis hotline or an emergency room if needed.
Panic attacks and panic disorder are both serious issues that can cause significant disruption to a person’s life. It is important to understand the main differences between the two conditions, as well as the common causes, symptoms, and treatments for each. With proper understanding and treatment, these conditions can be managed and prevented in day-to-day life.