“Panic Attacks” and “Panic Disorder”: even though these terms are often used interchangeably, they’re really not the same thing. You can have a single (or a few) isolated panic attacks with no seemingly reason, and it can just stop. But if you keep having panic attacks and do nothing about it, then you may develop what is called a “Panic Disorder”, in which case the panic is unlikely to stop unless you find treatment.

What is a Panic Attack?

A Panic Attack (sometimes referred to as anxiety attack) involves the sudden and unexpected onset of panic, motivated by no specific reason other than as a response to some kind of danger in your surroundings. While having a panic attack, you may find it hard to breathe to the point where you actually worry about suffocation, you may get convinced you’ll have a heart attack at any moment, and you may experience many other bizarre symptoms. And while the good news is that you can’t die from a panic attack (worst case scenario your body will just shut down and you’ll faint), the bad news is that in your mind, the experience often feels just as intense and real as if you really were about to die. You can read this article to see the diagnostic criteria for panic attacks.

What is Panic Disorder?

Whereas panic attacks sometimes may happen to anyone sporadically and without major relapses, in some people they may become a recurrent waking nightmare. For someone having frequent panic attacks, deeper problems may arise: you may start getting so fearful of having more panic attacks (especially in unfamiliar grounds), that you may become very reclusive and even fearful of even going out (in which case a separate condition – agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces – may also occur). Having panic disorder can affect your quality of life in many ways, eventually making you feel as though you’re a prisoner in your own house. If you realize your panic attacks are getting more frequent and you’re starting to actually change your behaviors and routines because of that, there’s a good chance you may have developed a panic disorder. This is akin to the next pathological stage of panic, and is unlikely to just disappear unless you get adequate treatment.

The bottom line here is that you should learn strategies that help you deal with panic attacks, because otherwise they may grow in intensity and frequency. But even if the situation has already grown out of control, you shouldn’t be worried since that will only make things worse. Keep in mind that even though panic disorders are emotionally crippling, they can always be treated no matter how bad they seem. However, like any other sickness — when it evolves into a full blown disorder, you will be unlikely to cope without the help of a trained professional. In short, the sooner you act, the better the odds of overcoming your panic issues swiftly.