Panic Disorder vs Panic Attack

by Barb Gombosi

Panic attack and panic disorder are not the same thing. Not everyone who has panic attacks has panic disorder.

However, everyone who has been diagnosed with panic disorder is experiencing panic attacks as a part of the panic disorder diagnosis.

Diagnosis of Panic Disorder

For a diagnosis of panic disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, lists these points:

  • You have frequent, unexpected panic attacks

  • At least one of your attacks has been followed by one month or more of
  1. ongoing worry about having another attack;

  2. continued fear of the consequences of an attack, such as losing control,
    having a heart attack or "going crazy";

  3. or significant changes in your behavior, such as avoiding situations that you think may trigger a panic attack.

  • Your panic attacks aren't caused by drugs or other substance use, a medical condition, or another mental health condition, such as social phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If you are experiencing panic attacks but you do not have a diagnosed panic disorder, you can still benefit from treatment.

If panic attacks are not treated, they can get worse. As a result of being untreated, they can also develop into panic disorder - a type of anxiety disorder.

If panic disorder is left untreated, it can sometimes lead to agoraphobia, which is an intense fear of being outside or in enclosed spaces.

"One in 10 adults in the U.S. have panic attacks each year"

A panic attack can happen anywhere and anytime. If you are experiencing a panic attack, you may feel frightened and overwhelmed, even though you’re not in any actual danger.

According to the 

“One in 10 adults in the U.S. have panic attacks each year. About a third of people have one in their lifetime. But most of them don’t have panic disorder. Only about 3% of adults have it, and it’s more common in women than in men.”

The symptoms of a Panic Attack

A panic attack is a sudden sensation of fear. If you experience a panic attack, you will experience four or more of the symptoms mentioned bellow:

  •  Pounding or fast heartbeat
  •  Sweating
  •  Trembling or shaking

  •  Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered
  •  A choking feeling
  •  Chest pain
  •  Nausea or stomach pains
  •  Feeling dizzy or faint

  •  Chills or hot flashes
  •  Numbness or tingling in the body
  •  Feeling unreal or detached

  •  A fear of losing control or going crazy
  •  A fear of dying

An attack usually passes in 5-10 minutes, but it can also last for hours.

People usually describe that a panic attack feels like they are having a heart attack or a stroke. Therefore, people who experience panic attacks frequently visit the emergency room for a medical evaluation.

Medical doctors will examine an individual and first rule out other medical health issues.

Then, if there are no medical issues, the doctors will a that assume that it is most likely a psychological issue. Therefore, they will refer the individual for a psychological evaluation to confirm the diagnosis of panic disorder.

Once the diagnosis of panic disorder is established, you might be referred to see a psychotherapist or psychologist for ongoing therapy, more specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy.

Through cognitive behavioral therapy you can learn how to change your thinking process and behavior from unrealistic and unhealthy to more realistic and healthier.

Besides psychotherapy, it is important that an individual works on making some changes in their lifestyle, which can have a beneficial effect on alleviating panic disorder symptoms.

For example,

  • reducing caffeine intake,
  • regularly exercising,
  • limiting alcohol consumption,
  • and doing deep breathing exercises.

 Barb Gombosi, M.S., LMLP is a Licensed Masters Level Psychologist