Panic and anxiety attacks can be disruptive and terrifying, especially if they happen unexpectedly. Although these two mental health conditions may seem like the same thing, they differ in symptoms, causes, and duration.
If you or someone you know may have suffered from an anxiety or panic attack, you may be looking for ways to discern between the two and help them cope.
This article provides an in-depth comparison between the two conditions, how they are diagnosed, and the treatment and coping mechanisms available.
- Panic and anxiety attacks are two separate mental health conditions with different symptoms and causes.
- A panic attack can occur without a trigger and usually doesn’t last long.
- An anxiety attack is usually triggered by a perceived threat or fear and can build up gradually over time.
- Both anxiety and panic disorders must be diagnosed by a medical professional.
- There are various methods of preventing and stopping a panic or anxiety attack without medical intervention, especially if the symptoms are mild.
Is There a Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Anxiety Attack?
Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are not the same thing. A panic attack usually involves the sudden onset of intense fear or discomfort and is classified as a mental health condition . In comparison, an anxiety attack is usually triggered by a stressful or fear-inducing situation. Anxiety attacks may also build up gradually and can range from mild to severe.
In most cases, panic attacks can occur without a trigger and last only for a few minutes . Panic attacks also cause more physical symptoms of fear than cognitive ones.
Who do you think is more prone to experience symptoms of anxiety?
Many articles claim anxiety attacks aren’t as bad as panic attacks. Although this may be true in some cases, an anxiety attack can certainly be as severe as a panic attack under some circumstances.
Another difference is that panic attacks are recognized by the DSM-5 or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Anxiety attacks are not, although bouts of anxiety are recognized as part of the symptoms of other mental disorders.
What Are the Symptoms of Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks?
Although panic attacks and anxiety attacks share some symptoms, they are distinguishable by the occurrence of feelings of detachment from the world or your own body. These symptoms solely occur during a panic attack.
Panic Attack Symptoms
The symptoms of a panic attack include the following :
- Excessive worry or fear
- Heart palpitations
- Elevated heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling smothered
- Choking sensation
- Chest pain
- Abdominal distress
- Feelings of unreality or being detached from yourself
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of becoming crazy
- Tingling sensations
- Hot flashes
Anxiety Attack Symptoms
There are different types of anxiety disorders, each with its own set of, at times, similar symptoms. However, the most commonly experienced symptoms of an anxiety attack are amplified versions of the symptoms of anxiety and may include the following [3, 4, 5]:
- Excessive worry or fear
- Racing heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Choking sensation
- Shortness of breath
- Tingling sensations
- Muscle tension
- Abdominal distress
- Hot flashes
Causes and Risk Factors
Just as the symptoms of the two events may differ, so do their causes.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
Although panic attacks occur without a trigger, there are some situations or events that could increase the risk of experiencing one, including :
- Hereditary tendency to experience panic disorder
- Pre-existing fear or phobia
- Assuming anxiety symptoms like an elevated heart rate or shortness of breath will have severe consequences like a heart attack
- Agoraphobia: The fear of crowded or empty spaces
- Claustrophobia: The fear of enclosed, small spaces
- Acrophobia: The fear of heights
- Chronic illnesses
- High-stress job
- Drug or alcohol withdrawal
- Memories of traumatic experiences
- Excessive use of caffeine
What Causes Anxiety Attacks?
Anxiety attacks are usually caused by an external factor producing fear and apprehension. If a person suffers from an anxiety disorder, they may have an anxiety attack if they are placed in a situation where the source of their condition is present.
One example is selective mutism in children or selective mutism in adults caused by social anxiety and exposure to a social event or situation . Being placed at the center of a conversation in a social setting could result in an anxiety attack for people with the condition.
Other causes of anxiety attacks include :
- Certain medications
- Substance abuse
- Traumatic experiences
- Childhood trauma or memories
- Being placed in a situation or environment that triggers their specific anxiety disorder
Which of the following is the most common anxiety disorder?
Diagnosis and Treatment
Only a doctor or psychologist can diagnose a panic or anxiety attack and its related disorder. Anxiety attacks can’t be diagnosed on their own, but the conditions giving rise to them can.
A doctor may recommend a psychological evaluation or blood tests if they suspect an underlying medical condition, like an overactive thyroid gland, is causing the disorder.
However, visiting a hospital or clinic isn’t entirely necessary if this may cause you even more stress, as some online platforms like BetterHelp or TalkSpace provide online access to licensed therapists who can guide you through the process.
Once you have received a diagnosis, your healthcare provider or a mental health professional can discuss treatment options for either disorder, which may include :
- Psychological therapy
- Prescription medication that may help ease symptoms.
Often medication-based treatment won’t be recommended if attacks are mild, and you can manage them after several sessions of therapy and psychoeducation aimed at helping you identify and avoid possible triggers, especially if you suffer from recurring panic attacks.
How To Stop a Panic or Anxiety Attack
As many of the symptoms of these attacks correspond, you can use similar methods to try to manage or stop both panic and anxiety attacks, including:
- Practice mindfulness: This is one of the most widely recommended self-help strategies to help manage anxiety or panic disorders and involves acknowledging your fears and feelings without letting your body or mind react to them. Progressive muscle relaxation, where you focus on tensing and releasing specific muscle groups individually, can also be helpful .
- Breathing exercises: Practicing conscious and deep breathing exercises and focusing on calming your breathing when you feel an attack starting could help reduce its effects and intensity .
- Keep your mind at ease: This might seem impossible, but accepting that you are experiencing a panic or anxiety attack and reminding yourself that the symptoms are not life-threatening and will pass can prevent you from spiraling and worsening the episode.
- Use meditation or other relaxation techniques: Whether this means closing your eyes and focusing on positive thoughts or doing something that usually calms you, like taking a bath or shower. Once you feel an episode starting, remaining calm and distracting yourself can work wonders for helping ease the symptoms .
- Use medication: If your doctor has prescribed you antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, or short-term benzodiazepines, take them as instructed whenever you feel an episode coming.
- Use home remedies: Aromatherapy, essential oils like lavender, and other herbal teas and supplements can help you calm down . Although most of these have not been medically proven to ease panic or anxiety attack symptoms, anecdotal evidence suggests they may have some benefits.
If someone you care about suffers from an anxiety or panic disorder, our articles on how to overcome anxiety and how to help someone with anxiety can provide you with the information, you need to offer them the right kind of support.
How To Prevent Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks
Being diagnosed with panic or anxiety disorders shouldn’t leave you despondent or in an even worse mental state. There are many ways you can reduce your chances of experiencing an episode, including:
- Medication: A doctor can prescribe anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressants that can help you manage your condition on a long-term basis.
- Lifestyle changes like reducing stress from your job, exercising regularly, and limiting your alcohol or caffeine intake can significantly reduce your chances of having another attack .
- Therapy can help you identify the underlying causes of your anxiety and panic disorder and help you avoid situations or tracks of thought that may cause another episode. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, where you actively learn how to deal with the triggers of your conditions, have been proven extremely helpful .
If you’re interested in therapy but don’t want to visit a clinic or office to obtain the help you need, online therapists are also available, and the two best sites for this are discussed in detail in our Betterhelp review and Talkspace review.
Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about anxiety and panic attacks.
How Do You Know If You’re Having an Anxiety Attack or Panic Attack?
Anxiety and panic attacks tend to share various symptoms. However, the main differences between panic and anxiety attacks.
- Panic attacks cause physical symptoms of sudden fear, while anxiety attacks result in more severe general symptoms of anxiety.
- Unexpected panic attacks often occur without a trigger, while anxiety attacks build gradually due to a perceived threat or source of fear.
- Panic disorders are diagnosable, while anxiety disorders are not and can only be treated alongside an existing anxiety disorder.
What Does an Anxiety Panic Attack Feel Like?
The physical symptoms of a panic attack most often include shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, and feeling detached from yourself or the world. An overwhelming sense of fear that you may die or go crazy often accompanies this.
Did I Just Have a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks have a specific set of physical symptoms. If you experienced feelings of detachment, derealization, or a sense of overwhelming fear of death during the episode, it is likely you just had a panic attack.
What Is Worse, Anxiety, or Panic Attack?
Both panic and anxiety attacks are dangerous mental health conditions. Panic attacks usually don’t vary in intensity, but anxiety attacks do. This means both types can be equally severe, although an anxiety attack may sometimes be more mild depending on the circumstances that caused it.
Anxiety and panic attacks are stressful and disorienting. Thankfully, there are various ways to cope or prevent them using relaxation techniques or attending therapy sessions.
Suppose you are looking for a way to get help without visiting a hospital or clinic or would like more information about these conditions. In that case, online resources are available and are covered in our comprehensive Betterhelp review and Talkspace review.
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