Panic Attacks Vs. Anxiety Attacks: Differences & Symptoms

August 22, 2021

Your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, you can’t breathe, you fear you might pass out, and you feel as if you are going to die…BREATHE! Anxiety attacks vs. panic attacks – that which doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger!

A panic attack is something difficult to describe if you haven’t ever had one. Mostly, because even though most people have similar symptoms of a panic attack, they can experience it in many different ways. Although people often interchangeable use panic attacks and anxiety attacks, they are not the same. A panic attack is something that comes on suddenly, and it also causes an intense amount of fear. It also doesn’t always have a known stimulus, which is what makes them so unpredictable. They also have very different physical symptoms as an anxiety attack. There are many differences between anxiety attacks vs. panic attacks.

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden and overwhelming feeling of fear or emotion that is accompanied by physical symptoms. Although it may feel similar to an anxiety attack, panic attacks are often much more intense. And they may or may not be associated with an event or stressor. Panic attacks are related to an external stressor like a phobia, but they are not always explicitly tied to any one event or thing in a person’s life. If you have more than one panic attack, then you are considered to be someone who has panic disorder. Someone can experience both an anxiety attack alongside a panic attack. 

What are the Symptoms of Panic Attacks?

Panic attack in public place. Woman having panic disorder in city. Psychology, solitude, fear or mental health problems concept.

Panic attacks usually come with specific symptoms such as worry, distress, fear, and restlessness. They can also come with some of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pains
  • An accelerated heart rate
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Paresthesia (tingling or numbness)
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, and upset stomach
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Headache

Causes of Panic Attacks

Unexpected panic attacks do not have any direct external trigger that sets them in motion. That is what makes the fear of them so intense; there is no way to make them stop by extinguishing a specific event or stressor. But expected panic attacks do have an external trigger just like an anxiety attack. Those causes can come from a host of things such as:

  • Phobias
  • Chronic illnesses like asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, and diabetes
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
  • Certain medications and supplements
  • Thyroid disease
  • Caffeine
  • Chronic pain
  • Memories of past trauma
  • Driving
  • Stressful situations at work
  • Social events or situations

What are the Risk Factors for a Panic Attack?

Both anxiety and expected panic attacks have similar risk factors, which include:

  • Experiencing or witnessing trauma or traumatic events in the past
  • Experiencing a life-altering event such as losing a loved one or going through a divorce
  • Ongoing stress related to work, family issues, or financial problems
  • A chronic illness or experiencing a life-threatening one
  • Having a predisposition to anxiety due to your personality style
  • A mental disorder such as anxiety or depression
  • Being closely related to a family member who also has panic attacks or anxiety attacks
  • Substance abuse 

What is an Anxiety Attack?

Anxiety attacks, unlike panic attacks, are not accepted in the DSM-5. Anxiety is at the heart of many common psychiatric disorders classified within the manual. In general, an anxiety attack causes worry, fear, and distress. And it is almost always related to a specifically stressful or anxiety-provoking situation or event. Unlike a panic attack, an anxiety attack can also come on gradually over time, not suddenly and with extreme intensity. An anxiety attack is not a clearly defined medical diagnosis. So although people can report the same experiences, there is no set medical definition.

What are the Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks?

Anxiety attacks are less extreme and don’t always come on all at once. When someone is experiencing an anxiety attack, it can come on gradually and build, and it usually includes:

  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Worry
  • Fear
  • Distress

Causes of Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks are usually caused by a specific event or an anxiety-provoking situation that someone is experiencing. There is a specific thing that brings it on, which is discernible, whether it is something that builds or some event that makes you feel overwhelmed.

What are the Risk Factors for an Anxiety Attack?

Anyone who is presented with more stress than they can cope with can experience an anxiety attack related to a situation or event. Anxiety attacks are highly associated with other common psychiatric disorders, like generalized anxiety and depression.

Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks

If you are wondering if you are having panic attacks vs. anxiety attacks, keep these differences in mind:

  • An anxiety attack is directly related to something either threatening or anxiety-provoking. Panic attacks can appear out of nowhere and have no discernible cause 
  • Panic attacks are extreme, intense, and disruptive. Anxiety symptoms can range from mild to severe, like not being able to focus or concentrate. But, typically, they are not to the degree of disruptive
  • Physical symptoms are more intense when you have a panic attack. The body has an extreme rush of adrenaline that is caused by the autonomic “flight or fight” response
  • Panic attacks come on abruptly and intensely; anxiety can be gradual over time
  • When you experience a panic attack, you often begin to fear to have another one. And that fear might alter your daily activities, what you do, and how you behave. You might start to avoid things out of fear that it will happen again

If you have had an anxiety attack in the past, you have an increased chance of experiencing a panic attack. But just because you have anxiety, that does not necessarily mean that you will have a panic attack.

How to Diagnose Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks

A doctor can typically use the recount of your experience to diagnose a panic attack. Although they can not diagnose an anxiety attack, clinicians can diagnose things related to anxiety such as:

  • The symptoms of anxiety
  • An anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • A panic attack

There are tests that a doctor can do to help with a diagnosis, including blood tests, a physical exam, an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG,) or a psychological questionnaire or evaluation. Since, however,  the physical symptoms are short-lived and immediate, the retelling of your experience will probably be sufficient.

Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Panic Attacks 

Close up of woman meditating in park at sunrise.

If you are experiencing panic attacks, it is essential to talk to a professional to try to ease the symptoms. But there are things that you can do to lessen panic-related symptoms and anxiety. Having a plan of action when you feel as if one might be coming on will increase the control you have to reduce fear and the severity of the episode. If you feel anxiety or panic starting:

Take slow and deep breaths. The physical symptoms of panic will make your heart rate accelerate, cause shortness of breath, and make you feel light-headed or dizzy. Try to slow the effects of anxiety that can lead to a panic attack by inhaling as much as you can to fill your stomach and then exhaling fully. Counting to four while you exhale is a way to gain control over the physical symptoms that you experience. 

Stay rational, and both recognize and accept what is happening. Although a panic attack definitely is not all in your head, you do have the ability to control components of it to lessen fear and take back control. If you are having an anxiety or panic attack, recognize it. If you remain as rational as possible and use self-talk to reduce fear, the episode will last for a shorter time. And it also won’t be nearly as scary as if you let your mind race and get the best of you.

Use Mindfulness. Mindfulness is an excellent way to treat both anxiety and panic attacks. It is a technique that helps to ground your thought process in the present, which will stop your mind from getting the best of you. Much like recognizing and accepting, practicing mindfulness is an excellent way to work past the symptoms and maybe stop panic attacks altogether.

Relaxation techniques. Things like aromatherapy, guided imagery, and muscle relaxation techniques can help to stop the physical symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks. If you are experiencing a lot of stress, try performing whatever relaxation technique works best for you. 

Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Panic Attacks

Making specific lifestyle changes can help to reduce both panic and anxiety attacks, and also help to lessen their severity if you do experience one:

  • Learn how to manage stressors in your life
  • Identify and stop negative thoughts before they have a chance to take root
  • Exercise daily 
  • Practice yoga or meditation
  • Eat nutritiously, staying away from tigers like alcohol and caffeine
  • Find a support group for people who experience panic and anxiety attacks

Other Treatments for Anxiety and Panic Attacks

If your panic attacks are altering your quality of life, then it might be appropriate to use medications to gain control. Some common medications are:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Anti-anxiety drugs
  • Antidepressants

For medications to be most effective, using a combination of pharmaceuticals along with therapy is recommended. 

The Take-Away…how to Find a Healthier You!

Although panic and anxiety attacks are often talked of as if they are interchangeable, they are not. An anxiety attack is a response to something discernible, and although uncomfortable, it typically does not alter your life or cause a disruption in your daily activities. Panic attacks are severe, intense, and often are not related to a specific stressor, which makes them difficult to extinguish and even scarier to live with. 

If you are experiencing either panic attacks or anxiety attacks, talking with a therapist is an excellent way to overcome the fear, learn mindfulness, and to take back control over your thoughts, symptoms, and concerns. 

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