Anxiety and panic disorder are often used interchangeably to describe the same emotion, but they represent two different clinical psychiatric conditions.
An anxiety disorder is a type of mental health condition characterized by intrusive and unwanted thoughts that cause fear and worry and are debilitating in a patient’s day-to-day life. Anxiety disorders are persistent and are usually relatively long-term or chronic.
Anxiety disorders are often represented by generalized anxiety disorder, which can be described as a recurring and overarching feeling of worry throughout the day, but there are many different types of anxiety disorders. Panic attacks are a symptom of some anxiety disorders.
So what differentiates anxiety and panic disorder?
What is a Panic Disorder?
A panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by frequent untriggered and uncontrollable panic attacks, which combine physical and mental symptoms, such as sudden fear, intense sweating, fight-or-flight feelings, increased agitation, lightheadedness, a tightened chest or closed throat, raised heart rate, heart palpitations, and hyperventilation.
Panic disorders are usually differentiated as with agoraphobia or without agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by an intense fear of having a panic attack in a public situation or a large crowd, or anywhere else where it might be difficult to escape judgment or embarrassment.
Panic attacks are very severe, but they are also quite short. In contrast, many other anxiety disorders are characterized by symptoms of worry or overwhelming fear that wrap around a person and change their thoughts.
A person with a panic disorder can still feel anxiety and can also be diagnosed with another anxiety disorder. Common signs and symptoms of a panic disorder include:
- Frequent panic attacks, characterized by:
- Feeling out-of-control, or a feeling of impending doom/death before a panic attack.
- Chest pain.
- Hot flashes.
- Choking feeling.
- Dizziness and lightheadedness.
- Abdominal pain.
- Shortness of breath and hyperventilation.
- Numbness in the limbs.
- Heart palpitations.
- Depersonalization (dissociating from oneself)
- Signs of agoraphobia, such as:
- Avoidance of places where panic attacks have happened before.
- Fear of crowds and confined spaces.
- Fear of being alone.
- In some cases, an inability to leave their home.
Panic attacks can last an hour or longer. However, they reach their peak quickly, usually within the first ten minutes. Most symptoms begin to subside after this point.
Different Kinds of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders encompass multiple conditions characterized by intrusive fear and worry. While these are normal emotions, patients must display debilitating symptoms to be considered a problem.
For example, someone who isn’t fond of people or worried about being mugged might still go out and run errands or might feel relaxed in a different neighborhood or region. But someone with agoraphobia may not leave their home or may never visit certain places out of an irrational fear of an embarrassment that might never come to pass.
Teens worry about test results and exams, about relationships with friends or crushes, and about college life. But a teen with an anxiety disorder will experience symptoms strong enough that they heavily interfere with their ability to learn or focus and cause significant distress.
In addition to panic disorder, some common anxiety disorders include:
1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by an ongoing, pervasive sense of worry or tension.
2. Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder is characterized by worries and fears surrounding other people’s perceptions of the patient, as well as a fear of social situations and excessive self-consciousness. It can range from a fear of public speaking to selective mutism around strangers.
3. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
While it is considered in a category of its own at times, obsessive-compulsive disorder is also classified as an anxiety disorder. It is characterized by pervasive obsessions or intrusive thoughts and the compulsive behaviors they trigger. These behaviors serve to temporarily soothe or calm a person after they begin having their intrusive thoughts, but they do not lessen the frequency with which these thoughts occur. The intrusive thoughts in OCD are a source of anxiety and significant discomfort to patients.
4. Post-traumatic stress disorder
Also known as a stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by an agitated sense of fight-or-flight, a higher likelihood of being startled, unwanted thoughts or memories, lost memories or depersonalization, and multiple symptoms of anxiety after a traumatic event. Many different things can cause PTSD, ranging from natural disasters to combat experiences and domestic violence.
Phobias are an intense fear of something specific, to the point that it becomes an obsession and interferes with a person’s day-to-day life.
For example, while most people are afraid of getting bit by a spider, arachnophobia is characterized by such an intense fear of spiders that it harms a person’s focus and causes them to imagine spiders or worry about spiders without a specific trigger.
Furthermore, their intense fear and reaction can be triggered by the mention or sight of a spider in a picture or in a recording, even though they know it’s just a picture or recording.
Treating Anxiety and Panic Disorders
There are different treatments for anxiety and panic disorders.
Some anxiety disorders respond well to behavioral or cognitive behavioral therapy, and/or certain medications, including beta-blockers or anti-anxiety meds. Others respond best to exposure and response prevention therapy and other types of exposure therapy.
Depending on your condition and any existing co-occurring illnesses, a doctor will usually begin with the first-line treatment most commonly used for your respective anxiety disorder and then consider other treatments depending on how well you respond to the first.
Treating anxiety and panic disorder can take time. Treatments themselves may only involve a few sessions at first, but it can take years to come to terms with a diagnosis and learn to consistently apply different therapeutic methods and coping skills to avoid recurring symptoms.
An important piece of advice is to not think twice before seeking professional help, even if you are doing so for the third, fourth, or tenth time. If you feel you need it, you do. We all need help from time to time, and therapy is crucial to helping individuals with anxiety and panic disorders find ways to recontextualize, expose, and overcome intrusive and unhelpful thinking.