I get asked from time to time about the difference between “panic disorder” and “post traumatic stress disorder.” I know about panic disorder from personal experience and PTSD from association as a mental health social worker. The definition of the word “trauma” is what separates the two anxiety disorders.
I developed PD as a result of having had one too many panic attacks. My first attack was at age 10, and I had episodes of panic attacks at various times during my youth. The one I had while traveling at age 19 was the topper – the one that turned me into someone so frightened of having another terrifying panic attack that I avoided travel for the next 30 years. What I experienced was a trauma. My traumatic event was a panic attack over essentially nothing. There was nothing real to frighten me, but the experience of the attack traumatized me.
Someone with clinical PTSD truly experienced something horrific. The person saw, heard, felt, smelled something that triggered their “fight or flight” system to become constantly alert to any new dangers. I had people on my caseload who were struggling with the symptoms of PTSD, the result of everything from wars to accidents to assault and abuse.
The “trauma” of having a panic attack is obviously vastly different from the “trauma” of a land mine or a vicious beating or a horrific accident, but the effects can be similar. The hyper vigilance of a person diagnosed with PTSD is, from a brain mechanics point of view, much like the state of anxiety one feels fearing the effects of yet another panic attack. In both cases, severe anxiety can force the person into avoidance as a means of survival. Both disorders can create “agoraphobia.”
As horribly frightened as I was by panic attacks many times over the years, my suffering cannot compare to the suffering of someone who hears and sees the terrifying cause of their mental illness in dreams and flashbacks. That sort of agony is beyond my comprehension.
One similarity of PD and PTSD is that in many cases the actual “threat” is not present – the fear is of a reappearance or a recurrence. In both cases, treatment requires a re-programming of the amygdala-controlled alarm system. My program in Un-Agoraphobic can lead anyone to overcoming chronic panic attacks through specific activities and processes. Intensive psychotherapy may be required to help a PTSD victim cope with and learn to live with the specific memories.
Here’s a link to an excellent (and readable) scholarly article on the role of the amygdala in anxiety. The Biology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders is a good place to do research on your disorder.