This post is the first of a multipart series on panic disorder. In this series, we will discuss what panic disorder is, what panic attacks are, how it is a type of anxiety disorder, what factors maintain panic attacks, and treatments that are available. This topic is highly relevant to many people given how often patients tell me they experience panic attacks, and even more so, how often patients state “I have panic attacks all the time. They last hours.”  In this case, it is true that many believe they are experiencing a panic attack when, in fact, they are not.

The term “panic” is thrown around rather often (just as is the word “bipolar”) and it is important to be educated on what panic attacks really are. Why is this important? Because it is helpful to know what you are really experiencing so you can convey this information more clearly to your doctor. After all, there is a difference between experiencing anxiety and having a panic attack. It is understandable why so many people report having panic attacks as sometimes anxiety can feel so strongly that it seems like “this must be a panic attack.” More often than not, it is anxiety that you are experiencing. but this is not to say that panic attacks are uncommon or rare.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

Panic attacks occur abruptly and are marked by intense fear or discomfort.  The peak of intensity occurs within minutes.  Additionally, at least four of the following symptoms must be present:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Nausea or abdominal discomfort
  • Sensations of shortness of breath
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying

What Makes a Panic Attack Different From Anxiety

Many people confuse anxiety with panic because both are accompanied by physical symptoms. However, the main difference between intense anxiety and a panic attack is the intensity and duration of symptoms.

With a panic attack, symptoms occur very suddenly and very intensely.

As described above, during a panic attack, symptoms reach their peak level of intensity within minutes (usually 10 minutes or less) and then start to subside. With anxiety, symptoms usually appear gradually, and slowly increase in intensity.  Overall though, anxiety symptoms are less intense than that of a panic attack.  Since they are less intense, they may be longer lasting, and unlike a panic attack which usually subsides within 10 minutes or so, anxiety can last days, weeks, or even months. Also, with anxiety there is usually a specific stressor or anxiety-producing thought or situation. Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly during a calm state or in an anxious state, but often occur unexpectedly and sometimes when waking up from sleep.

Panic Disorder

Panic attacks make up the diagnosis of Panic Disorder.  You are likely to be diagnosed with Panic Disorder if you:

  • Experience frequent, unexpected panic attacks that are not linked to a specific situation
  • Worry often about having another panic attack
  • Behave differently because of panic attacks, such as avoiding places where you’ve previously panicked

Panic disorder usually begins in adulthood (after age 20), but children can also have panic disorder.

We’re Here to Help

Dr. Barbash is an anxiety disorder specialist who is trained and experienced in working with panic disorder.  If you are struggling with intense anxiety or panic attacks, give us a call.  At Tampa Therapy, we are committed to providing a relaxing, healing, and non-judgmental environment to support you on your journey.  If you want things to be different, you have to change them.  Give us a call or email us today to start the process of making important changes in your life.

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