Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often described similarly, and many people may experience both at the same time. Feelings of panic and anxiety typically feel alike, as both trigger the fight-or-flight response in the body. Although the two share similar emotional and physical responses, panic attacks and anxiety attacks are different conditions.
What Is a Panic Attack?
Before we look at the differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, we need to understand each condition on its own. First, a panic attack is a brief, temporary episode of intense anxiety that produces physical sensations of fear. Panic attacks occur frequently, may come unexpectedly, and may or may not be related to an external threat. They may only be a few minutes or last up to half an hour, but long-lasting physical and emotional effects may persist for longer. Symptoms may include:
- Anxious or irrational thinking
- Fear of going mad, losing control, or dying
- Hot flashes
- Tightness in the chest
- Racing heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle tension
- Feelings of detachment from the environment
What Is an Anxiety Attack?
An anxiety attack is also an episode of extreme and excessive worry or fear that is also accompanied by intense physical responses in the body. The anxiety experienced is typically a reaction to a thought-provoking or external threat, although it may not be related to a life-threatening situation. Anxiety attacks can also range in duration from seconds or minutes to a half-hour or longer. Symptoms for an anxiety attack looks similar to those of a panic attack and may include:
- Nausea or dizziness
- Shortness of breath
- Tightening in the chest
- Racing heartbeat
- Intense feelings of panic or fear
Comparing Anxiety and Panic
Anxiety attacks and panic attacks both have very similar physical responses, including increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, chest pain, and sweating. While both conditions share an emotional symptom of fear, they have other emotional responses that set them apart. Anxiety attacks include symptoms of worry, distress, and restlessness, while panic attacks include fear of dying or losing control, as well as a sense of detachment from their environment or themselves.
Many other unique characteristics set both attack conditions apart, including:
While anxiety attacks may or may not have a specific trigger, panic attacks do not have a specific trigger. Anxiety is a response to a specific worry or fear, while panic may show no obvious cause.
A panic attack is a symptom of panic disorder, which is a diagnosable mental health condition in the APA DSM-V (American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition) which is the manual for assessment and treatment of mental health diagnoses. Anxiety attacks are not listed in the DSM-V. Diagnosis of disorders can only be done by a mental health professional.
An anxiety attack is less severe than a panic attack and develops more gradually than a panic attack. A panic attack occurs suddenly and unexpectedly and can happen regardless if a person feels anxious or if they feel calm.
While anxiety is more likely to be associated with a specific situation, symptoms of an anxiety attack tend to onset more gradually. A panic attack happens suddenly, with symptoms peaking after about 10 minutes. Effects vary from person to person on how long they may last, although panic attacks may last about a half-hour long.
When to Get Help
Feelings of anxiety every so often are normal, as they are a cue that your natural fight-or-flight response is working. When this stress response becomes over-reactive and occurs when non-threatening triggers arise, it may be time to get help. Persistent anxiety or panic can lead to more severe diagnoses if not treated. It is important to take action to seek help and reduce anxiety if it becomes overwhelming or persistent.
There are many routes of treatment one can seek if they are experiencing concerning or repetitive symptoms of anxiety. There are therapy options, such as psychotherapy, that are effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety, as well as reduce the frequency of such attacks. Other therapy options may include exposure therapy, where you are gradually exposed to frightening stimuli. Over time and through the process, you are taught coping mechanisms and other adaptive techniques that train your brain to understand that the stimuli are not as frightening as you have made them out to be. Medication is also an option for anxiety if your physician believes it would be a right fit. There are anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressant medication, and beta-blockers that help reduce the physical symptoms of panic and anxiety that may otherwise be difficult to stop.
The terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” are often used synonymously, although the two terms define different experiences. Both conditions produce similar physical sensations, but there are many facets such as diagnosis, duration, development, and triggers that set these conditions apart. Feelings of anxiety are normal and tell us that our natural fight-or-flight response is working correctly. When feelings of anxiety become overwhelming or persistent, it may be a sign to seek help. Treatment options for abnormal experiences of anxiety or panic may include therapy and/or medication. Achieve Concierge offers comprehensive services for all of your mental health needs, including treatment programs for feelings of anxiety and/or panic. If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one experiencing frequent or severe anxiety attacks or panic attacks, we are here to help. For more information about the resources that we offer, please give us a call at (619) 393-5871.