Seizures and panic attacks are two events that can happen to someone so suddenly that they seem to lack explanation. The lists of symptoms are long and bizarre, and the underlying conditions happen in the brain which is difficult to observe. The explanation is not as simple as blaming virus or bacteria, and treatments are more complicated than popping a pill. Medical literature names various possible causes and risk factors that seem to apply for a wide array of health conditions. All these lead to a difficulty in clearly defining either one, and give a sense of mystery to both.
Both are surreal experiences to be sure, and can cause drastic changes in one’s lifestyle just to cope, but still very different from each other. When studied closely, the two are quite distinct. The symptoms are different, and even though said symptoms are just physical manifestations of what is happening in the brain, the nature of these events in the brain are vastly different. A seizure is physiological, while a panic attack is psychological. Seizures and panic attacks, and their differences, are explored further in the following sections.
What is a Seizure?
A seizure is an abnormal or excessive electrical discharge or activity of neurons in the brain which causes the brain cells to misfire, send wrong signals and send them too rapidly. This abnormal brain activity in turn causes physical symptoms that are varied and many, lasting from a few seconds to several minutes. Some symptoms may occur before the actual seizure takes place such as sudden fear or anxiety, dizziness, changes in vision, jerky movement of the limbs, or headaches. The symptoms of an ongoing seizure include loss of consciousness followed by confusion, uncontrollable muscle spasms, frothing at the mouth, clenching of teeth, rapid eye movement, loss of control in the bladder or bowel function, or even changes in mood.
There are many situations or conditions that either directly trigger a seizure or increase the risk of having one. These risk factors include brain injury or infection, brain tumor, stroke, intake of varied substances from alcohol to drugs (medicinal or otherwise), as well as stress. Other risk factors may be genes, hormonal imbalance, or medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, lupus or meningitis. The treatment of seizures may be medicine based as doctors may prescribe antiepileptic drugs which adjust or reduce excessive electrical brain activity. Surgery may also be performed if the cause of the seizure is determined to be caused by or originates in a specific part of the brain.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden surge of intense fear or anxiety that may or may not have a known cause or is disproportionate to a perceived threat. This intense fear comes with a variety of psychological symptoms as well as physical symptoms that are similar to a heart attack or the beginning of a seizure. The physical symptoms include increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, hyperventilation, nausea, chest pain, headache, chills, or the numbness and tingling commonly known as “pins and needles”. The psychological symptoms include a fear of losing control or of dying, a sense of impending doom, or a sense of being detached from the body called derealization. A panic attack may last anywhere from several seconds to several minutes. Heart attacks, seizures and other physiological causes are often eliminated first before a health professional considers a panic attack.
Like most mental disorders, the exact cause of a panic attack is unknown. However, a panic attack is itself a symptom of an underlying mental health condition. Recurrent panic attacks with no obvious cause may be diagnosed by mental health professionals as panic disorder. Persons with specific phobias typically avoid the cause of their fears but they may experience panic attacks in prolonged exposure. Other mental health conditions that are risk factors include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Other risk factors include stress, family history, childhood abuse, traumatic event, grief, or even a major life event such as getting married or having a baby. With the exact cause of panic attacks being unclear, treatment is often a combination of medication of anti-anxiety drugs, psychotherapy and preventive measures such as lifestyle changes.
Difference between a Seizure and a Panic Attack
A seizure is an excessive electrical activity of neurons in the brain, misfiring or firing too rapidly, which causes a variety of physical symptoms, sometimes preceded by psychological symptoms. On the other hand, a panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear with no known cause or disproportionate to a perceived threat which leads to physical and psychological symptoms.
The symptoms of a seizure include loss of consciousness followed by confusion, uncontrollable muscle spasms, frothing at the mouth, clenching of teeth, rapid eye movement, loss of bladder or bowel control, or mood swings. Other symptoms may signal a seizure before it occurs such as sudden fear or anxiety, dizziness, changes in vision, jerky movement of the limbs, or headaches. Panic attack symptoms include increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, hyperventilation, nausea, chest pain, headache, chills, or the numbness and tingling commonly known as “pins and needles”, fear of losing control or of dying, a sense of impending doom, or a sense of being detached from the body called derealization.
Duration of symptoms
Seizures may last from a few seconds to several minutes, while a panic attack may last from several seconds to several minutes.
Some of the risk factors for a seizure include brain injury or infection, brain tumour, changes in brain chemistry caused by various sorts of substances or by hormonal imbalance, existing medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, and many more. Risk factors for a panic attack include underlying mental health conditions such as panic disorder, specific phobias, OCD, PTSD, or GAD. Stress, family history, childhood abuse, traumatic event, grief, or even a major life event can also cause a panic attack.
Treatments for seizures include antiepileptic drugs and surgery. Panic attacks are usually treated or managed through anti-anxiety drugs, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes.
Seizure vs Panic Attack
- Seizures and panic attacks are two events that occur in the body that originates in the brain and manifest in physical symptoms that look alike and can even be confused with heart attacks.
- A seizure is abnormal electrical activity of neurons in the brain, misfiring or firing too rapidly, which causes physical symptoms such as muscle spasms, loss of consciousness and confusion. Seizures are often a symptom of an underlying medical condition such as a brain injury or tumour, meningitis or Alzheimer’s disease.
- A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear or anxiety without an obvious cause or disproportionate to the perceived threat. Symptoms include increased heart rate, hyperventilation, a sense of dread and derealization. Panic attacks are usually a symptom of a deeper mental disorder such as panic disorder, specific phobia, or PTSD.
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