What is the Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack?

Many people use the term “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” interchangeably to describe the same experience.

However, these two terms do not actually refer to the same thing. While they can share some similarities, there are many differences between the two.

Once you understand how they differ, you’ll be better equipped to use the right term for the right situation.

What is an Anxiety Attack?

Anxiety attack is not directly defined in the DSM, as it is not specific to one disorder. The term refers to a period of intense anxiety that has been brought on by a stressor or trigger. Many people feel anxiety in relation to bad or dangerous experiences, but when the anxiety becomes so severe that it overwhelms your life and happens on a regular basis, you are more susceptible to experiencing an anxiety attack.

Anxiety attacks are an extreme extension of worrying excessively over something. When that worry becomes extreme and severe, it can turn into an anxiety attack.

The symptoms of an anxiety attack include:

  • Dizziness
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Feeling like you are in incredible danger
  • Feeling a dire need to escape
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pins and needles in different parts of your body
  • Numbness and tingling in your extremities
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Racing heart
  • Feeling like you might pass out.

Those who suffer from anxiety related disorders can be prone to anxiety attacks. These disorders include:

  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Severe Phobias
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

However, you don’t need to have an anxiety disorder to experience severe episodes of anxiety. There are several situations that can cause anxiety. These include:

  • Work stress
  • School stress
  • Relationship issues
  • Financial problems
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Medication side effect
  • Symptom of a physical illness
  • Lack of oxygen

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden period of intense panic and fear. They don’t appear to be in reaction to a stressor or trigger, and often feel like they come out of nowhere. These attacks can also happen back to back, and tend to be more extreme than what someone might experience in an anxiety attack.

Panic attacks are usually a major symptom of panic disorder. Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder in which a person experiences unexpected but frequent panic attacks. Many who suffer from panic disorder worry about when and where they might experience another panic attack, which can lead to more anxiety.

Symptoms include:

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Feeling like the world around you isn’t real, or like you aren’t real
  • Fear of dying or going crazy
  • Numb or tingling sensations
  • Feeling like you are choling
  • Excessive sweating

How They Are Similar

Both anxiety attacks and panic attacks are characterized by being overcome with fear and terror. In both situations, someone who suffers an anxiety or panic attack will experience a paralyzing sense of dread or unease.

Those who suffer from anxiety or panic attacks might believe that something is physically wrong with them. If you’ve recently had a panic attack, especially if you don’t know where it came from, you might think that you have a muscular disease, brain tumor, or heart problem. Many people with undiagnosed anxiety mistake the symptoms of an anxiety attack for a heart attack and seek emergency attention to be treated. While these concerns can feel overwhelming, the reality is that panic disorder and anxiety disorders are easier to treat than many of these medical illnesses.

Both panic and anxiety attacks share similar symptoms, such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Shaking
  • Choking or feeling short of breath
  • Sweating
  • Racing heart
  • Trembling or shaking

Both anxiety attacks and panic attacks respond well to similar types of treatment. Therapy, medication, meditation, and other self help techniques have been shown to be effective in treating both conditions.

How They Are Different
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One of the biggest differences between anxiety attacks and panic attacks is that anxiety attacks have an identifiable trigger, while panic attacks seem to come out of nowhere and aren’t related to a stressor. You might call an anxiety attack a panic attack if you have a hard time identifying what caused your anxiety to go off. Most of the time with a little effort, you’ll be able to figure out what set off your anxiety. If you can’t find a source of your panicked feelings, then it is likely you’ve suffered from a panic attack.

Anxiety and panic originate in different parts of the brain. Panic attacks come from the autonomic nervous system (specifically the sympathetic nervous system) and the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. Anxiety generally comes from the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of planning and anticipation. Anxiety attacks happen when the prefrontal cortex goes into overdrive and becomes too anticipatory.

The severity of symptoms in panic attacks tends to be greater than those of anxiety attacks. Because they come on suddenly, panic attacks can be incredibly debilitating or embarrassing. Many people with panic disorder find that they are limited in their ability to live their life, because they are worried about when the next panic attack will strike.

Anxiety attacks can come from a mental illness, but people who don’t have an anxiety disorder can experience anxiety attacks in response to a very stressful situation. Panic attacks are clearly linked to panic disorder. Panic attacks can be associated with other psychological disorders, but most of the time happen alongside panic disorder.

Panic attacks also tend to be shorter than anxiety attacks. Most panic attacks are done within ten minutes, while anxiety attacks can last for 30 minutes. Most of the time, after someone has a panic attack, the lingering effects do not last as long as those from anxiety. Because anxiety attacks come from worrying about something to an extreme, the feeling of dread and fear that peaks in an anxiety attack won’t necessarily dissipate.

Many people who experience panic attacks believe there is an immediate threat to themselves, whereas anxiety attacks are severe forms of anxiety. Those who experience anxiety attacks generally experience extreme worry instead of believing they are in immediate danger.

There are some symptoms that are specific to panic attacks, and some that you’ll only get with anxiety attacks.

Anxiety Attack:

  • Muscle tension
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Restlessness
  • Startles Easily
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue

Panic Attack:

  • Feeling like the world around you isn’t real
  • Feeling like you aren’t real
  • Nausea
  • Feeling smothered

Why People Use The Terms Interchangeably
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Even mental health professionals mix up using anxiety attack and panic attack. The phrase anxiety attack is not in the DSM, so it is not considered a clinical term. This makes it easy to mix up the terms. If mental health professionals make this mistake, it’s understandable that someone who doesn’t have as much experience in the field would make that mistake as well.

Many people use the term “panic attack” when they are talking about an anxiety attack. Often times, this is because when they are experiencing extreme periods of anxiety, they might be panicked about the object of their worry. Since many of the physical symptoms are the same, it’s easy to mistake one for the other.

Many people also don’t understand that panic attacks are primarily related to panic disorder.

Understanding the difference between them will help you and your mental health providers treat the right disorder. If you use the term panic attack to describe an anxiety attack, and your therapist starts treating you based on that terminology, you might receive the wrong treatment. While both respond well to similar types of treatment, you may need a tailored approach to treat one and not the other. Panic attacks respond better to different types of medication than anxiety attacks, because they result from different psychological disorders.

While many people use these terms interchangeably, understanding the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack will help you pursue the best treatment for what you are suffering from. Once you’re on the road to treatment, you’ll be able to get back to your life without fear of panic or anxiety attacks.

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