The Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Depression, anxiety and injuries

Although anxiety and panic attacks can feel similar, they are not the same conditions; however, they are often used interchangeably.

Many people talk about anxiety and panic attacks as if they are indistinguishable. However, if you are having symptoms of panic or anxiety, it would help if you recognised the differences between the two to get the help and support you require.

Anxiety vs. panic attacks

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks have some shared symptoms.

However, perhaps one of the most distinguishable features is that anxiety attacks usually occur in anticipation of a stressful event, experience or situation where symptoms appear gradually.

In contrast, however, panic attacks usually occur suddenly and involve significant, overwhelming fear and other frightening symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fast heartbeat, or nausea.

Anxiety attacks

Anxiety attacks are not recognised by the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM – 5).

However, the DSM- 5 identifies anxiety as a component of other prevalent mental disorders.

Panic attacks

Panic attack

Unlike anxiety attacks, the latest edition of the DSM -5 (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders) recognises panic attacks as a diagnosed mental health condition. However, it classifies them as “expected” or “unexpected.”

Unexpected and expected panic attacks

The research literature states that expected panic attacks get triggered by external stressors, such as fears or phobias.

On the other hand, unexpected panic attacks can occur without apparent cause.

The researchers say that although anyone can experience a panic attack occasionally, having more than one episode may be symptomatic of a panic disorder.

If you are experiencing panic attacks regularly, you must speak to your doctor or a mental health professional for advice, treatment and support.

Panic and anxiety

Due to the lack of diagnostic acknowledgement, the signs and symptoms of anxiety attacks are open to translation.

People experience anxiety attacks differently. For example, someone who has an anxiety attack episode may experience entirely different symptoms from someone else.

Understanding the critical differences between anxiety and panic attacks is crucial and may allow you to control your symptoms and get the support you need.

The Difference between anxiety and panic attacks

Panic and anxiety attacks are often confused, although they present differently and can also feel different to those experiencing them – however, both panic and anxiety attacks involve intense emotions and sensations.

Anxiety attacks

The symptoms of anxiety attacks tend to be different in intensity and duration.

Anxiety attacks usually occur in response to a recognised threat or external stressor.

Symptoms of an anxiety attack

CFHH Mood Disorder Mirror

Symptoms of anxiety attacks are milder than panic attacks and include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

How long do anxiety attacks last?

Anxiety attacks can last anything from a day to a few months. However, the onset of anxiety attack symptoms is usually gradual.

Panic attacks

As mentioned, panic attacks can occur suddenly and sometimes without a cause.

The lack of an identifiable trigger may cause an individual more anxiety since there is no way to predict when a panic attack will occur and why.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Symptoms of a panic attack are much more severe than anxiety attacks and include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • A sense of dread or doom
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • A feeling of detachment or unreality
  • Fear of losing control
  • Chest pain
  • Intense fear of dying

How long do panic attacks last?

Panic attacks last a few minutes and usually come on suddenly.

Key differences

A critical difference between panic and anxiety attacks is that panic attacks occur without a specific cause or trigger.

On the other hand, anxiety attacks are usually associated with a specific event, situation or experience. However, although panic attacks and anxiety attacks are different by nature, they do have shared symptoms such as:

  • Irrational thoughts
  • Shortness of breath
  • Intense fear
  • Dizziness or light-headedness

Although anxiety attacks can be highly unpleasant, they are less severe than panic attacks. However, the symptoms of an anxiety attack can last longer and may continue for days, weeks, or months.

Anxiety attacks do not usually interfere with daily functioning – whereas panic attacks often impair a person’s ability to function as they usually would; moreover, anxiety attacks can be mild, moderate to severe.

Panic or anxiety attacks

Anxiety attack symptoms are gradual and may increase over time. However, the symptoms of an anxiety attack tend to dissipate once a feared event or situation subsides.

In contrast, panic attack symptoms are more intense and severe; additionally, as unpleasant as both sets of symptoms are, panic attacks are a diagnosed condition, whereas anxiety attacks aren’t.

What causes panic attacks?

Anxiety disorder up close

The research literature reports that unexpected panic attacks have no apparent triggers. However, expected panic attacks do have identifiable causes; typical triggers include:

  • Driving
  • Thyroid issues
  • Phobias, for instance, claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) or agoraphobia (fear of open or crowded spaces)
  • Memories (or reminders) of a traumatic experience
  • Chronic illness or pain, for example, diabetes, asthma, heart disease or stomach issues like irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Caffeine and certain medications
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs

How to identify whether you are having an anxiety or panic attack

If you have ever experienced a panic attack, specific symptoms and sensations are likely to feel familiar.

Experiencing a sudden sensation of dread, impending doom, worry, or terror is synonymous with panic attacks – an experience that can be profoundly scary when you encounter an episode.

You may begin shaking or sweating, feel extremely dizzy or disoriented, and have trouble breathing.

Other symptoms

Other unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, rapid heartbeat and feeling as if something terrible is about to happen are all prevalent features of a panic attack.

You may find it challenging to function as you ordinarily would – moreover, feeling on edge, tired, stressed or worried after a panic attack is also expected.

Emotional and physical symptoms

The symptoms of a panic attack usually happen out of the blue – whereas an anxiety attack is often related to an external stressor or concern.

As uncomfortable as anxiety attacks can be, they are more manageable and do not disrupt a person’s ability to function. In contrast, panic attacks are more severe and can cause disruptive symptoms.

Fight or flight

When someone experiences a panic attack, their “fight or flight” response kicks in, causing physical symptoms that are more intense than those observed in anxiety attacks.

Another critical thing to remember is that experiencing more than one panic attack could indicate a panic disorder. Thus, it would help if you spoke to a doctor or mental health professional for advice.

Risk factors

Various risk factors may put someone at risk of anxiety or panic attacks. They include:

  • Chronic stress and worry, such as work, family, or financial concerns
  • Experiencing traumatic events in childhood or adulthood
  • Having another mental health condition, such as depression or a personality disorder
  • Having a family history of anxiety or panic disorders
  • The death of a loved one or going through a divorce or separation.
  • Drug or alcohol use disorders
  • Living with a life-threatening illness or chronic health condition

Treatment

Ladder of motivation

Fortunately, treatment options are available for those experiencing anxiety or panic attacks. 

Treatment usually involves talking therapies, such as:

  • Cognitive therapy – between you and your therapist, you will uncover the root cause of your anxiety and reframe any maladjusted beliefs, thoughts and perceptions to help you neutralise any destructive behaviours.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – involves reframing your experiences, allowing you to view your worries through a new lens. Your therapist can help you to develop new techniques for managing your fears and triggers when they arise.
  • Relaxation techniques – involves guided imagery, progressive relaxation, breathwork, and biofeedback.
  • Exposure therapy – includes confronting your fears or phobias in a new way through guided exposure to events or situations that trigger anxiety or fear.

Your doctor may prescribe specific medications such as antidepressants, beta-blockers, or anti-anxiety drugs.

Additional ways to manage anxiety or panic attacks

Researchers say that specific lifestyle changes can help prevent panic or anxiety attacks and help alleviate the severity of symptoms when episodes occur.

For example, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, joining a support group for people who experience panic or anxiety attacks, practising yoga or meditation, and limiting alcohol, drug or caffeine intake are all helpful ways to prevent anxiety and panic attacks.

Contact us

If you think you have any of the symptoms mentioned in this article or are concerned about your mental health, contact a Centres for Health and Healing specialist who can help.

Helpful resources

  1. What’s the Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Anxiety Attack?: Healthline, Carly Vandergriendt, October 19, 2021
  2. Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks: SimplyPsychology, Olivia Guy-Evans, February 14, 2022
Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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