Depression and Anxiety

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: What They Are, and Are They Different?

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: What makes them different? Our blog explores the subtle (and major) differences between these two awful experiences.

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks

Table of contents

Written by

Brian MooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

Jeremy ArztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

July 14, 2023

The Forge Recovery Center

Feeling stressed or anxious in different situations is a part of life. You can feel nervous about basic things, such as what to wear to an event, or anxious about big life decisions. Either way, it is entirely normal and is not considered a disorder when occasional and only lasts a short while. An anxiety disorder is when it goes out of hand and is uncontrollable – leading to anxiety attacks. 

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are terms that are commonly used as synonyms. However, they are different conditions. Anxiety attacks occur in response to triggers and gradually build up, while panic attacks are abrupt and sudden. Whether anxiety or panic attacks, they both point to unresolved mental health issues that need addressing.

This article will discuss the difference between anxiety and panic attacks, common signs and symptoms, causes, and other important details. 

Stats About Anxiety & Panic Attacks:

The American Psychiatric Association presents statistics showing the percentage of individuals suffering from anxiety disorders in the USA in any given year. Studies show that almost 7% of American adults suffer from social anxiety disorder, and 2-3% of adults struggle with panic disorders. 

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: What is an Anxiety Attack?

An anxiety attack is an emotional response the mind gives to certain situations. It is usually connected to anticipating a stressful situation, event, or experience. An anxiety attack comes while waiting for something to happen. These attacks come with symptoms such as distress, fear, and extreme worry. 

Mental Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Feeling restless 

  • Experiencing irritability 

  • Physical Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack

  • Sleeping troubles

  • Fatigue and tiredness 

  • Racing heartbeat 

  • Dizziness 

  • Tension in muscles 

  • Easily startled 

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: What is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks are sudden, as compared to anxiety attacks. They come suddenly and abruptly and are filled with an intense fear that overwhelms the affected person. Some uncomfortable physical attributes accompanying a panic attack are breathlessness, nausea, and increased heart rate. 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition or DSM-5, panic attacks come in two different forms:

  • Expected panic attacks: attacks that are triggered by external causes and stress-inducing situations. 

  • Unexpected panic attacks: attacks that just occur out of the blue, without any apparent reason or obvious cause.

Mental Symptoms of a Panic Attack

  • Feeling like you are detached from your body

  • Fear of losing control 

  • Being afraid of going crazy

  • Fear of death

  • The feeling that nothing is real

  • Physical Symptoms of a Panic Attack

  • Pain in the chest

  • Dizziness 

  • Feeling faint or lightheaded 

  • If you feel like you are choking 

  • Being unable to breath

  • Feeling numb and tingly 

  • Getting the chills

  • Palpitating or pounding heart

  • Experiencing hot flashes 

  • Abnormally fast heart rate 

  • Abdominal pains and nausea 

  • Shaking or trembling 

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: How Can I Tell Which One I’m Having? 

It can be difficult to understand whether you or someone you love are experiencing a panic or anxiety attack. There is a fine line between the two; telling them apart may seem impossible sometimes. In such cases, try to focus on the following: 

The Cause of the Attack

Anxiety attacks usually occur due to something that seems stressful or threatening to the person experiencing the attack. 

Panic attacks do not need to be triggered by a stressor. They are usually abrupt and occur without an apparent reason.

The Level of Distress

Anxiety attacks can range from mild to severe, depending on every person and their specific traits. For instance, someone may be experiencing an onset of anxiety throughout the day but may be able to go about their day. On the other hand, someone may feel anxious and experience an attack shortly after

Panic attacks, however, are typically severe and can disrupt your whole day. 

How Quickly They Happen

Anxiety attacks usually build up slowly and gradually 

Panic attacks are typically very abrupt and come without notice 

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Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: What Causes Them?

Like many other mental disorders, the cause of anxiety and panic attacks is not yet completely understood. However, these conditions negatively affect the affected person's life. Traumatic life events can be triggers that lead to anxiety and panic in people, especially those who are already suffering from other mental health issues.

There is no apparent reason for the onset of unexpected panic attacks, but expected panic and anxiety attacks are commonly observed to be caused due to the following primary reasons:

  • Stressful and uncomfortable social situations 

  • Different phobias and things that you may fear 

  • Stressful work environment 

  • Traumatic memories and experiences 

  • Life-changing illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, heart diseases

  • Extreme and chronic pain 

  • Substance withdrawal symptoms 

  • Side effects of various supplements and medications 

  • Excessive caffeine intake 

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: Who is at Risk?

Many factors can make individuals prone to anxiety attacks and panic attacks. However, both of the conditions have similar risk factors.

Trauma

Someone who has experienced trauma or has witnessed events that have caused them extreme pain is often at risk of developing anxiety and panic disorders. These traumatic experiences can be the death of a loved one, life-changing accidents, or serious illnesses. 

Stress

Everyone experiences some stress in their life, but constant stress without being able to relax and blow off some steam occasionally can take a toll on mental health. Ongoing stress at work, family responsibilities, financial burdens, problems at school, and bad relationships are just a few reasons that can cause stress in your life and maybe become a reason for the onset of panic and anxiety.

Chronic Illnesses

If someone is chronically ill or living with life-threatening health conditions, they may not be able to tell what will come tomorrow. The fact that the future is unknown and they cannot anticipate if and when they will get better can cause mental stress. People with conditions such as cancer, tuberculosis, HIV, and other chronic diseases are prone to anxiety and panic attacks. 

Existing Mental Health Conditions

Individuals who already have mental health issues such as depression or some phobia are more at risk of experiencing panic attacks and anxiety attacks.

Genes

If you have an immediate family member who suffers from panic and anxiety, you may also be at risk of developing the condition. 

Substance Abuse

It is common for individuals to frequently use alcohol or drugs to conceal their mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Substance abuse, however, only exacerbates it, especially if you suddenly attempt to quit cold turkey and fall into withdrawal.

It is important to remember that someone with anxiety is at higher risk of panic attacks. Still, it does not mean that they must experience the attack. 

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: What do Doctors Say?

It is not possible for doctors to medically test or diagnose anxiety attacks, but diagnosis of anxiety disorders, anxiety symptoms, panic attacks, and panic disorders is possible. To do this accurately, medical healthcare providers will try to get a good knowledge of your condition. They will ask you about the symptoms you experience and then run some tests for conditions with the same symptoms, like thyroid or heart problems.

Once these are ruled out, a doctor can fully understand your issue. To be able to get a proper diagnosis, your healthcare professional may conduct:

  • Blood tests

  • Heart-related examinations like ECG or EKG

  • Physical exams 

  • Psychological evaluations with the help of verbal or written questionnaires 

If you are experiencing panic attacks, the doctor will be able to diagnose it, but the same cannot be said for anxiety attacks. However, a very close diagnosis can be made for anxiety attacks. For example, suppose your doctor determines that you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder or anxiety symptoms. In that case, you may have had or are prone to anxiety attacks too. 

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Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: How They’re Treated

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be exhausting to live with. However, you never know what may trigger you. There are comprehensive treatment options for such disorders of the mind, including medication, therapy, or even self-help. Always speak to your doctor and find what is best for you and your situation.

Some treatment options to consider after consulting a medical healthcare provider that is fully aware of your history:

Psychotherapy & Counseling

Therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, or phycologists can talk to patients with anxiety or panic disorders to understand their problems. This can help manage attacks, along with helping patients understand why they are facing such troubles. The types of psychotherapy that doctors recommend are:

Cognitive Therapy

This therapy helps pinpoint exactly where your problem stems from. You can then reframe these unwanted feelings and neutralize invasive thoughts that trigger the attacks.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This helps you see your triggers, worries, and stress-causing factors in a new light. Counselors will help you create and develop new techniques to manage triggers to avoid an attack. 

Exposure Therapy

As the name suggests, this therapy exposes the patient to situations that trigger their fears, panic, and anxiety, but in a controlled manner. This helps them confront these fears. 

Mindfulness Therapies

Techniques that help relax the mind and help manage panic or anxiety attacks. To do this, doctors may guide you through breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, autogenic training, and biofeedback. 

Medical Assistance

Your doctor may prescribe a few types of medication to help manage your panic attacks or anxiety attacks. These include:

  • Beta Blockers help control various physical symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety attacks, such as increased heart rates 

  • Anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines can help calm you down as they are sedatives 

  • Antidepressants contain SSRIs and SNRIs and help manage signs of panic and anxiety. 

Lifestyle Changes

A few tips to help you prevent panic attacks and anxiety attacks and reduce their severity when they do occur are:

  • Get regular exercise 

  • Practice meditation such as yoga, breathing techniques, relaxation techniques

  • Improve your sleeping pattern 

  • Eliminate alcohol and substance abuse from your routine

  • Minimize caffeine intake 

  • Make sure you have a nutritious diet 

  • Try to reduce stress and enjoy a calm environment 

  • Join a support group

  • Learn how to identify and manage triggering and negative thoughts 

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: Calming an Anxiety Attack or A Panic Attack 

A few techniques can help you stay composed until an episode of anxiety or panic does not blow over. Try the following tricks next time you experience an anxiety attack or panic attack:

  • Identify and acknowledge that you are having an attack; denial is not going to help 

  • Keep telling yourself “This is not going to last forever,” which is true. It is just a matter of being patient. 

  • An attack will affect your breathing pattern. Take deep breaths to keep yourself as calm as possible. Try the 4-7-8 breathing technique.

  • Try to pinpoint exactly where you feel the anxiety – scan your body and find where you are feeling it so you can shake that body part and tell your brain you have released the anxiety. 

  • Tell your anxiety that it is allowed to stay for some time, but then it has to leave – you own your body, not your anxiety or panic attack. 

  • Take yourself to your happy place. Close your eyes and visualize a place, situation, or thing that makes you happy – just for a few minutes!

You can use these tips to calm yourself or a loved one if they are experiencing a panic or anxiety attack. Always remember that there is hope, and you can take control of your situation. Contact a doctor if you feel like you need someone to guide you or need to speak to someone. 

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: Both are Awful to Experience. The Forge Recovery Center Will Help

Emotional health and mental well-being are the first and most important steps to living a happier and healthier life. Mental healthcare professionals, support groups, online self-help resources, communities, and crisis hotlines are always available for individuals nationwide.

The Forge Recovery Center has a dedicated and effective mental health treatment program. Guided by a trauma-informed philosophy, we’ve carefully curated a welcoming, warm space in which the causes of anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be safely explored and treated.

You deserve a better life. Reach out today to The Forge Recovery Center and learn more about our effective, evidence-based mental health treatment program.

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