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The Differences Between an Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack

Updated: May 8, 2023

Is it anxiety or a panic attack? What’s happening to me?

Key takeaways:

  • People often use the terms anxiety and panic interchangeably.

  • Anxiety is actually a necessary but uncomfortable emotion.

  • Having too much anxiety and panic can cause a disorder.

Your heart is beating wildly, your breath becomes shallow, and you want to cry, but you don’t know why. Are you having a panic attack? Is it “just” anxiety? People often use these terms interchangeably, but they are not the same.

Anxiety may be helpful. It doesn’t feel like it, but it is helping you by providing valuable information. It tells you when to flee, freeze, or fight and activates your body’s responses, so you don’t even have to think about activating them yourself. Anxiety helps you avoid genuine threats to your existence.

Panic is often a response to a perceived threat/triggering event and almost always happen suddenly without warning. Panic attacks may be expected or unexpected.

In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between anxiety and panic attacks, their signs and symptoms, and how you can help yourself if you experience them.

Anxiety versus panic

Anxiety and panic attacks are similar. At times, they can feel almost identical, but panic attacks are more intense. Anxiety attacks typically build gradually whereas panic attacks are usually abrupt and often unexpected.

These attacks can happen to anyone. They are natural occurrences in the human body. It is when they happen often and consistently that they may be considered disorders that require medical assistance.

Anxiety versus panic attack symptoms

Panic and anxiety attacks share many physical and emotional symptoms and can feel very similar. They are different, however, and you can even experience them both at once. For instance, worrying about a public speaking engagement can cause anxiety. When the moment arrives, anxiety can morph into full-blown panic.

Symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks include:

  • An intense fear of dying

  • Distress

  • Incessant worry

  • Fear of losing control

  • Derealization or depersonalization (a sense of detachment from the world or oneself)

  • Accelerated heart rate

  • Heart palpitations

  • Chest pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Tightness in the throat or a sensation of choking

  • Xerostomia (dry mouth)

  • Sweating

  • Chills

  • Hot flashes

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling in the extremities)

  • Nausea or upset stomach

  • Abdominal pain

  • Feeling faint

  • Dizziness

  • Headache

These two attacks share so many symptoms that it can be hard to figure out if you’re experiencing a panic attack or an anxiety attack. It helps to consider these factors:
  • The speed of arrival - Anxiety attacks build up slowly. Panic attacks are sudden and intense.

  • Causation – The cause of anxiety is some event that your mind has deemed troublesome. It may or may not actually be troublesome. Panic typically comes out of nowhere, although intense phobias can trigger a panic attack.

  • Distress levels - Anxiety attacks run the gamut of intensity. They can be mild, moderate, or severe. They can run in the back of your mind when you’re doing something else, like an app on your phone. It may or may not amp up to higher distress levels. It may just go away.

Panic is usually a more intense feeling. It comes on strong out of nowhere and makes you feel like it’s the end of the world, literally.

The most obvious difference between the symptoms of anxiety and panic is the severity. In most cases, panic attacks are far more severe than anxiety attacks.

Panic versus anxiety attack triggers

Triggers are things that incite an attack. Triggers can be events or incidents but they can also be people, places, words, and actions. Unexpected panic attacks have no trigger, and the reasons for them are unclear.

Some things that typically trigger panic and anxiety attacks include:

  • Life stressors, including a demanding job, marital problems, and financial troubles

  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs

  • Chronic pain

  • Side effects of medications

  • Phobias, including irrational fears of anything from insects to balloons or other inanimate objects

  • Exposure to triggers

  • Overuse of stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine

While these are the most common triggers, there are many more. Each person’s triggers will be different, depending upon their life’s circumstances and experiences.

Risk factors

People are more likely to develop a panic or anxiety disorder if they:

  • Have experienced past traumatic events

  • Have a family history of panic attacks

  • Have a diagnosis of mental health issues such as depression or bipolar disorder

  • Have any chronic medical condition such as a thyroid disorder, asthma, diabetes, fibromyalgia, or heart disease

  • Have alcohol or drug dependency

  • Experience intense life stressors

Some risk factors are present at birth, such as sex. Females are twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder as males.

Getting help for panic and anxiety attacks

The first step to addressing a panic or anxiety attack is to look it square in the face. Whatever the major worry is must be addressed head-on. Avoidance is the fuel that these attacks feed on. Facing those fears robs the attack of its power.

In the case of unexpected panic attacks, know that you are physically fine and that you will come out of one when it happens. Telling yourself that nothing physically damaging is happening and that you are okay will help you ride it out.

When the impulses are too strong to ignore, it could be time to seek medical help.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, approximately 40 million U.S. adults experience significant anxiety yearly.

Treatment for anxiety and panic disorders depends on the severity and causes, but they are manageable. No one has to live with these disorders forever.

Panic and anxiety can take over your life, but together we can stop them

The Love Discovery Institute is an elite emotional and cognitive wellness center that offers therapy for adults, children, and teens from licensed therapists. Our therapists understand people and emotions well and help them with significant stressors. If you are suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, we are here to help you stop them.

The team at Love Discovery is ready to welcome you with open arms. If you’re ready to start therapy to improve your symptoms, make an appointment with any of our therapists today. Feeling hesitant about how we can help? Call 305-605-LOVE (5683).

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