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What is the Difference Between Panic Disorder and PTSD?

Image of woman struggling with panic for our FAQ on Panic Disorder and PTSD

Panic Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder both tend to come with panic attacks but what it the difference between the two? Although the end result may appear to be the same, the differences between these two mental illnesses both depend upon how they originated and the symptoms that are currently apparent. Before diving into how these disorders compare to each other, let’s first explore them independently.

Panic Disorder

Panic attacks generally stem from a fear of losing control and anticipating disaster even if there’s no danger. Panic disorder, or PD, is usually identified by the severity of these attacks and how frequently they occur. They can often cause shortness of breath and may feel like a heart attack which can be quite traumatic for the person experiencing them. Because they can happen at any time, many people with panic disorder live in fear of having another attack. This constant dread can make it very difficult to complete everyday tasks like going to school or work.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Any particularly traumatic event has the potential to cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, known as PTSD, and its symptoms often show fairly soon after the event. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, most people that have been traumatized don’t develop chronic PTSD but it’s possible for symptoms to be delayed until several years later. This is why it’s important to be properly diagnosed by a licensed mental healthcare professional.

People who suffer from PTSD may re-experience the traumatic event through flashbacks and bad dreams or exhibit avoidance by staying away from places, objects, and even thoughts that are somehow related to the event. Arousal, reactivity, cognition and mood symptoms are also common with PTSD. Symptoms can range from depression to trouble sleeping and constantly feeling irritable which can easily lead to panic attacks.

How PTSD and Panic Disorder Compare

At the core of these two anxiety disorders, trauma is the key factor that sets PTSD and PD apart. The initial trauma of someone with PTSD is usually some type of dangerous or horrific event and very different from the trauma of a panic attack. Regardless of how the trauma occurred, it’s lasting effects on the mind can be very similar and cause confusion upon diagnosis. According to Psychology Today, both disorders can leave a person feeling “on edge” with heightened anxiety that causes them to avoid anything that could trigger an episode.

With both disorders, the actual danger is usually not present when the person has a panic attack and the response is usually out of fear of recurrence. If left untreated, PTSD and PD can lead to agoraphobia which limits a person to their homes out of fear of the real world. In both cases, psychotherapy may be necessary to help the person cope with the past and be able to deal with those traumatic memories. Getting a proper diagnosis for either PTSD or panic disorder can help to prevent those extreme cases and make living with these disorders a bit more bearable.

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