Understanding The Difference Between Panic Attacks And Anxiety Attacks

Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT

Published 12/22/2020

It is quite common to hear people use panic attacks and anxiety attacks interchangeably. The conditions are actually different. Panic attacks occur abruptly, causing the person to experience powerful and often devastating fear. Physical symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath, or racing heartbeat may accompany the condition. The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) identifies panic attacks and classifies them as unforeseen or expected. Unforeseen panic attacks happen without any identifiable cause. Expected panic attacks are from external stressors like phobias. Anyone can experience panic attacks, but experiencing the attack multiple times could indicate a panic disorder.

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The DSM-5 does not recognize anxiety attacks. However, it does, defines anxiety as a symptom of some common mental disorders. Signs of anxiety include fear, distress, and worry. Anxiety is often associated with the expectation of a stressful condition, event, or experience. It may occur gradually. Since there is no diagnostic recognition of anxiety attacks, the signs and symptoms are open to contextual definition. Therefore, someone may describe their experience with anxiety attacks and notice symptoms that another person has never noticed, suggesting that they have also had an anxiety attack. Continue reading to learn more about the differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks.

Overview Of Panic Attacks

A panic attack is an overwhelming wave of fear distinguished by its suddenness and devastating, immobilizing severity. The person may feel their heart beat faster, struggle to breathe, and feel like they are dying or losing their mind. Panic attacks usually occur unexpectedly, without any warning, and sometimes with no identifiable trigger. An attack may happen even in a relaxed state or during sleep.

A panic attack could be a one-off thing, although some people deal with recurrent episodes. Recurring panic attacks are often the result of a specific situation, like talking in front of a class or crossing a bridge – especially if you have experienced a panic attack in that situation before. Often, the situation causing panic makes you feel endangered and trapped, prompting a fight-or-flight reaction from the body.

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • A racing or pounding heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Nausea
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • A feeling of choking or smothering
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities
  • Stomachache

Someone dealing with a panic attack may feel a loss of control, a sudden fear of dying, or feel disconnected from themselves (called depersonalization) and detached from their immediate surrounding. The panic symptoms are often at the highest after 10 minutes; then, they can subside slowly. However, multiple panic attacks can occur concurrently, making it feel like the attack has persisted for much longer. After the attack, the person may feel worried, stressed, or otherwise out of place for the entire day.

You can experience a single or multiple panic attacks yet be in a happy or healthy state. Sometimes, panic attacks may happen as a symptom of another disorder, such as depression, social phobia, or panic disorder. Irrespective of the cause, it is possible to treat panic attacks. Several techniques are available to limit or stop panic symptoms, restore your confidence, and regain control of your life.

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Overview Of Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attack is not an identified clinical term. It is essentially a colloquial term that people use to describe intense or prolonged anxiety periods. People started to use the term because anxiety affected their lives by disrupting moments of calmness. The term is common in therapy, so mental health experts paid attention to it and provided a more defined explanation. There is a defined and clear distinction between a panic attack and an anxiety attack. Yet, there is no official definition of anxiety attacks.

An anxiety attack is more severe than an ordinary feeling of anxiety. It may get serious over a few minutes or hours, but it is not as intense as a panic attack. The attack can continue for several minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. An anxiety attack can be frightening and may even make you feel like you are going to die. However, it is not harmful and will eventually disappear. Until you are through the phase, you might notice some troubling symptoms. It is necessary to note that the symptoms are temporary; although it might uncomfortable at that time, you will soon regain your composure. Unlike panic attacks that occur abruptly, signs of anxiety attack occur after a period of excessive worry.

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Dry mouth
  • Fear
  • Lightheadedness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of concentration
  • Muscle pain
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities
  • Restlessness
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Being startled easily
  • Worry and distress

The person may also feel like that mind has gone blank, unable to control the worries, and struggle to fall or stay asleep. Mental health professionals often define an anxiety attack as a time of uneasiness about likely future events. Sometimes, an anxiety attack can be a run-up to a panic attack. Someone might experience an anxiety attack while going to the airport because they have suffered a panic attack on an airplane before.

In contrast to panic attacks, anxiety attacks are not always indications of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a normal reaction to specific situations or stimuli, and anxiety attacks are powerful feelings of emotion. Anxiety attacks often lead to a habit of avoidance or extreme caution. For instance, someone who has dealt with anxiety attacks due to social anxiety may shun the places or conditions that lead to anxiety.

Differentiating Between Panic And Anxiety Attacks

Since the symptoms are similar, it can be hard to distinguish between panic and anxiety attacks. Yet, a distinction is necessary. People who experience anxiety attacks or panic attacks often confuse the conditions. They may experience a panic attack but use an “anxiety attack” to describe their experience and vice versa.

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This confusion is why it is important to learn about the conditions and consult an anxiety specialist. Without a clear understanding of the terms and the differentiating factors, you might end up receiving treatment for a panic disorder that you do not have. Therefore, it is necessary to seek more details about your specific condition and consult a knowledgeable mental health professional about the conditions' challenges.

Some of the following tips are helpful:

  • Panic attacks often occur without any identifiable trigger. Anxiety is a response to a seeming threat or stressor.
  • The signs of panic attacks are powerful and disruptive. The person may feel a sense of detachment or separation from reality. The intensity of anxiety symptoms varies from mild to severe.
  • Panic attacks appear unexpectedly, while anxiety symptoms worsen gradually over some minutes, hours, or days.
  • Panic attacks generally wane after some minutes, but anxiety symptoms can persist for extended periods.
  • Panic attacks may be unforeseen or expected. Unexpected attacks have no obvious triggers.

Triggers of anxiety attacks and expected panic attacks may include:

  • Social stress
  • Work stress
  • Driving
  • Caffeine
  • A recollection of past traumas
  • Medications or supplements
  • Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol
  • Chronic conditions
  • Chronic pain
  • Different phobia (disproportionate fear of situations or objects)

Risk Factors Of Panic Attacks

Some of the factors that may put someone at the risk of panic attacks include:

  • Another mental health disorder like depression, anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder
  • Family members with panic or anxiety disorders
  • A chronic medical condition like diabetes, thyroid disorder, or heart disease
  • Recurrent stress in personal or work life
  • Anxious personality
  • Past trauma
  • Substance use disorder
  • Witnessing a traumatic incident
  • Females are more prone to anxiety or panic attacks than males.

Making A Diagnosis

A mental health professional or doctor can determine if you are experiencing a panic attack, panic disorder, or an anxiety disorder. They base their diagnosis from the guidelines in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

It is impossible to diagnose an anxiety attack because it is not a medically defined condition in the DSM-5. A medical professional can however, identify the symptoms of anxiety. For a diagnosis, the doctor will ask about the symptoms and life events. They may conduct a psychological evaluation to determine the category where the symptoms fall. It may be imperative to rule out other mental health or physiological conditions that may cause the same symptoms. This may require a physical exam, heart tests (like an electrocardiogram), or blood tests.

How To Deal With Panic Or Anxiety Attacks

Regardless of the helplessness or loss of control that you feel with the panic attacks, it is crucial to understand that you can take certain steps to help yourself during an attack. Some of the tips listed below can be effective for overcoming panic or anxiety:

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Learn more about panic and anxiety: Just learning more about panic and anxiety attacks can help relieve distress. Read on anxiety, panic disorder, and the fight or flight response during a panic attack. You will discover that the feeling or sensation that happens when you experience panic is normal, and you are not losing your mind.

Avoid smoking, caffeine, and alcohol: These substances can trigger panic attacks in high-risk people. If you need assistance stopping alcohol use or smoking, consider talking to a professional. Also, be wary of medications that contain stimulants like diet pills and non-drowsy cold drugs.

Practice how to control your breathing: Hyperventilation ushers in many sensations, including dizziness and tightening of the chest that occurs when you experience a panic attack. Difficulty breathing is one of the most prevalent and frightening symptoms of panic or anxiety attacks. Deep breaths can be effective for relieving the symptoms of panic.

Learning how to control your breathing can calm you down when you start to notice anxiousness. To slow down your breathing, pay attention to the breath. Inhale and exhale slowly and steadily until the symptoms abate. Count to four each time you exhale and inhale. Controlling your breathing will reduce the risk of triggering the sensations that you fear.

Practice relaxation methods: With regular practice, activities like meditation, yoga, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation reinforce the body’s relaxation response—instead of the stress response triggered during an anxiety or panic attack. These relaxation techniques do not just help you relax but also make you feel happy and calm. You can learn the techniques online or by consulting a qualified therapist.

Connect physically with family and friends: The signs of anxiety and panic can worsen when you are isolated, so try to connect with people who love and care about you regularly. If you feel there is no one to talk to, find new ways to meet new people, and create friendships.

Exercise regularly: Exercise is a natural way to relieve anxiety. Try to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Three sessions lasting 10 minutes are just as effective. Rhythmic aerobic exercises that entail moving your arms and legs, such as running, walking, swimming, or dancing, can be beneficial.

Get adequate restful sleep: Inadequate or low sleep quality can worsen anxiety, so try to sleep restfully for at least seven to nine hours every night. If sleeping well is an issue for you, you can talk to a medical professional for assistance.

Practice mindfulness: This can be highly beneficial for people dealing with anxiety, who often worry about potential or perceived stressors. Practicing mindfulness helps you pay attention to the thoughts, sensations, and emotions without judging or responding to them.

In Conclusion

The signs of a panic or anxiety attack can be scary. Accepting the situation and knowing the symptoms will pass soon enough can help reduce fear and anxiety. A doctor or mental health professional can develop a treatment plan to assist individuals with panic or anxiety attacks. You can take an assessment for panic disorder here.