Panic attack vs Anxiety attack (the difference?)

Panic attack vs Anxiety attack (the difference?)

In this guide, we will discuss Panic attack vs Anxiety attack, how they are different but people tend to argue they are the same thing, symptoms of a panic attack and anxiety attack, to keep in mind when differentiating one from the other, how it gets diagnosed and treatment options.

Panic attack vs Anxiety attack

Just like you, many people wonder what the difference between a panic attack vs anxiety attack is or if they are one and the same just with different ways of referring to the same condition. Some experts have made a clear distinction between them, while people seem to still refer to them as they are the same thing. They are not.

As indicated by Carly Vandergriendt, “Panic attacks come on suddenly and involve intense and often overwhelming fear. They’re accompanied by frightening physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea.”

Moreover, “The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes panic attacks, and categorizes them as unexpected or expected.”

Panic attack vs Anxiety attack (the difference?)

As the word ‘unexpected’ panic attacks implies, they happen without an obvious or evident cause. On the contrary, ‘expected’ or cued panic attacks occur when they are external stressors to provoke them such as the case of phobias.

On the other hand, anxiety attacks are not recognized by the latest edition of the DSM-5 but we know how there are certain distinct features associated with anxiety such as worry, distress, and fear. However, the lack of recognizing anxiety attacks as their own diagnostic category can be open to interpretation.

Even though they may be similar and the reason why people speak so freely about having anxiety or a panic attack is the same thing, we could talk about some of the distinction between them in terms of symptoms.

Symptoms of panic attacks vs Anxiety attacks

As we have discussed, they may feel the same way with the same symptoms and it is even possible to experience anxiety and a panic attack at the same time. For instance, you may experience anxiety thinking about an important test you need to take soon. When the day comes, your anxiety may lead to having a panic attack.

Panic attacks

  • The emotional symptoms experienced are intense fear, specifically the fear of dying or losing control, a sense of detachment from the world or oneself.
  • Physical symptoms include: heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath or hyperventilation, feeling like choking, dry mouth, sweating, chills or hot flashes, trembling or shaking, numbness or tingling sensation, upset stomach, headache, feeling like fainting or dizzy

Anxiety attacks

  • The emotional symptoms experienced are more related to apprehension and worry, distress, restlessness, and fear of what could happen in the future.
  • Physical symptoms include: heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath or hyperventilation, feeling like choking, dry mouth, sweating, chills or hot flashes, trembling or shaking, numbness or tingling sensation, upset stomach, headache, feeling like fainting or dizzy

Subsequently, as we have noticed, the emotional symptoms vary and we could mention how panic attacks seem to come unexpectedly or out of the blue while anxiety attacks may occur because anxiety has been gradually building up. On the other hand, symptoms are just the same which indicates how difficult it is to know whether you are experiencing one of the other. 

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Panic attack vs anxiety attack video

To Keep in mind when differentiating one from the other

  • Anxiety gradually builds up when exposed to something we perceive stressful, threatening, or dangerous while panic attacks aren’t always cued by stressors and most often happen out of the blue, no related stressor.
  • We know anxiety can be classed as mild, moderate, or severe. Letting us live our day to day activities with no interruption, but panic attacks are mostly associated with severe, disruptive symptoms. 
Panic attack vs Anxiety attack (the difference?)
  • While the symptoms seem to be the same in both cases, the physical symptoms of anxiety are less intense than the ones experienced during a panic attack.
  • Notice how anxiety keeps building up gradually, day by day while a panic attack happens suddenly and abruptly without a warning.
  • Panic attacks usually last for a few minutes, while anxiety symptoms can remain for long periods of time.

Causes and risk factors

While unexpected panic attacks can have no clear trigger, the expected panic attacks and anxiety can be triggered by similar stressors/triggers. We consider some of them to be:

  • Having a stressful job.
  • Having a child.
  • Getting married.
  • The loss of a loved one.
  • Driving.
  • Social situations.
  • Phobias (i.e. Agoraphobia or Claustrophobia).
  • Reliving traumatic experiences such as being abused or having a car accident as a child or adult.
  • Chronic stress.
  • Not being able to balance your life and work responsibilities.
  • Financial issues.
  • Conflicts in the family.
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs.
  • Suffering from health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, among others.
  • Having chronic pain.
  • Consuming beverages with caffeine.
  • Side effects from medication and supplements.
  • Thyroid problems.
  • Having an anxious personality.
  • Having comorbidities with other mental health conditions such as depression.
  • Having family members with anxiety or panic disorder.
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs.

There may be infinite potential causes and risk factors need to be evaluated and considered individually or on a case by case basis. However, it is believed females are more likely to develop anxiety and panic attacks than males.

How to diagnose?

If your doctor suspects you have diabetes they may take a random blood sugar test, fasting blood sugar, and oral glucose tolerance test. Anxiety and panic attacks can’t be diagnosed just by taking blood/urine samples or even taking brain scans.

Moreover, as we have discussed, no doctor will give you the official diagnosis of ‘anxiety attacks’ because it is not considered a category in the DSM-5. However, they can diagnose and determine if you are presenting anxiety symptoms, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, or panic disorder.

Panic attack vs Anxiety attack (the difference?)

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and may conduct some additional tests to rule out any underlying physical/medical conditions that could be responsible for the symptoms you are manifesting. Here is where your doctor may conduct a physical evaluation, take blood samples, order an ECG or EKG, and assess you psychologically through some questionnaires or tests.

What can I do during a panic attack?

There are several things you could do during a panic attack, one of them involves recognizing what is happening instead of fighting the panic attack. This can help you remember the symptoms will soon pass which can help you reduce the anxiety symptoms.

In addition, deep breathing has divided opinions on whether it works or not for everyone. Experts indicate deep breathing can be extremely useful if implemented correctly since we know how someone having a panic attack has shallow superficial breathing where they are engaging their chest (upper lungs) and shoulders to breathe. While deep breathing indicates we should take slow deep breaths engaging our lower lungs plus our diaphragm. 

However, many people believe taking deep breaths actually makes them feel more anxious and seems to complicate things. 

Panic attack vs Anxiety attack (the difference?)

In contrast, there are many relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imaginary that can help you cope with the feelings of panic and anxiety. You can find many of these online or by going to a qualified professional therapist.

Moreover, experts recognize the power of exercising regularly, eating healthy, and practicing mindful meditation as natural ways of dealing with anxiety and panic attacks. However, your doctor may prescribe certain medications to treat the symptoms.

Why is this blog about Panic attack vs Anxiety attack important?

We understand how people seem to confuse panic attacks and anxiety attacks arguing they are just the same. Even if anxiety attacks don’t actually have their own diagnostic category in the DSM-5 can be distinguished from a panic attack in the intensity, how it tends to occur (unexpectedly or out of the blue), and the triggers behind it.

Moreover, due to the differences, doctors can reach an accurate diagnosis, even if there are no blood/urine tests or brain scans to determine one or the other. However, your doctor may ask several tests to rule out any other underlying condition that could explain your symptoms.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Panic attack vs Anxiety attack

What is the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

The main difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack is, the panic attack doesn’t necessarily have a determined or evident stressor, which makes it unprovoked and unpredictable while an anxiety attack is short-lived and when the stressor goes away, so does the anxiety attack.

What does an anxiety attack feel like?

An anxiety attack is an episode of intense panic or fear. It happens suddenly and without warning in most cases with an obvious trigger such as being stuck in an elevator or just with the thought of giving an oral presentation. Some of the symptoms include pounding heart, sweating, feeling like fainting, shortness of breath, insomnia, shaking or trembling, upset stomach, among others. 

Does having a panic attack mean you have anxiety?

If you are having or you have experienced a panic attack it means you have anxiety. However, some people may experience it during certain times of their lives while others experience it all the time.

How long do anxiety attacks last?

An anxiety attack can is believed to last between 10 to 30 minutes, although the effects may last longer. Moreover, some people with anxiety can progress to panic attacks.

How do you calm a panic attack?

There are many tips that are useful to calm a panic attack, some of them include:

  • Deep breathing techniques.
  • Recognize you are having a panic attack instead of fighting it.
  • Closing your eyes and imagining you are in your happy place.
  • Practicing mindful meditation.
  • Reciting a mantra.
  • Find an object in the room and focus on it.
  • Using muscle relaxation techniques.

References 

Leonard, J. (2020, Jan.) How do you know if you’re having a panic or anxiety attack?. Retrieved from medicalnewstoday.com.

Ankrom, S. (2020, Jul.) Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks. Retrieved from verywellmind.com.

Vandergriendt, C. (2019, Sept.) What’s the Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Anxiety Attack?. Retrieved from healthline.com. 

Panic attack vs Anxiety attack (the difference?)

Daniela Paez

Daniela Paez is a Clinical Psychologist with an MSc. In Clinical Neuropsychology from Bangor University. She has vast experience in working with children with disabilities, adolescents and their families, in extreme conditions of poverty and vulnerability. Additionally, she owns a private practice where she provides neuropsychological evaluation for children and adults, and treatment for mood disorders, anxiety, couple therapy, among other conditions.