The Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Anxiety Attack

You may hear people talk about panic attacks and anxiety attacks as if they were the same thing. Although they are different conditions.

What is an anxiety attack?

The DSM-5 does not mention anxiety disorders but it does define anxiety disorders as a feature of many common psychiatric disorders.

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks occur suddenly and involve intense and often overwhelming fear. They are accompanied by very challenging physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat shortness of breath or nausea.

The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) identifies panic attacks and classifies them as either unexpected or expected.

Unexpected panic attacks occur for no apparent reason. Anticipated panic attacks are caused by external stressors such as phobias.

Panic attacks can happen to anyone but more than once can be a sign of panic disorder.

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Worry
  • Distress
  • Fear

Anxiety is often related to anticipation of stressful situational experiences or events. It may happen gradually.

The lack of diagnostic recognition of anxiety attacks means that symptoms and signs can be explained.

That is a person might describe themselves as having an “anxiety disorder” and have symptoms that no one else has ever experienced despite showing that they also have an “anxiety disorder.”

Read on to learn more about the difference between panic attacks and anxiety.

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks can feel similar and they have many emotional and physical symptoms.

You can experience anxiety and panic attacks at the same time.

For example you may feel anxious while worrying about a potentially stressful situation such as an important presentation at work. When the situation strikes anxiety can lead to panic attacks.

It can be difficult to know if you are experiencing anxiety or a panic attack. Remember the following points:

  • Anxiety is often related to something perceived as stressful or threatening. Panic attacks are not always caused by stressors. They most often appear suddenly.
  • Anxiety can be mild to moderate or severe. For example anxiety may come to your mind as you go about your daily activities. Panic attacks on the other hand mainly involve severe devastating symptoms.
  • During a panic attack the body’s autonomous fight-or-flight response takes over. Physical symptoms are often more intense than anxiety symptoms.
  • While anxiety builds up gradually panic attacks usually come on suddenly.
  • Panic attacks often trigger worries or fears related to having another attack. This can affect your behavior causing you to avoid places or situations where you think you might be at risk for a panic attack.

Unexpected panic attacks have no clear external trigger. Something like that can trigger the expected panic attacks and anxiety. Some common triggers include:

  • A stressful job
  • Driving
  • Social situations
  • Phobias such as agoraphobia (fear of crowded or open spaces) claustrophobia (fear of tight spaces) and acrophobia (fear of heights)
  • Reminders or memories of traumatic experiences
  • Chronic medical conditions such as heart disease diabetes irritable bowel syndrome or asthma
  • Chronic pain
  • Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Medication and supplements
  • Thyroid problems

Anxiety and panic attacks have similar risk factors. These include:

  • Experiencing trauma or witnessing traumatic events as a child or adult
  • Going through a stressful life event such as the death of a loved one or a divorce
  • Experiencing ongoing stress and worries such as conflicting work responsibilities in the family or financial distress
  • Have a chronic health condition or life-threatening illness
  • Having an anxious personality
  • Have another mental illness such as depression
  • Have a close relative who also suffers from anxiety or panic disorder
  • Using drugs or consuming alcohol

People who experience anxiety have an increased risk of panic attacks. However anxiety does not mean that you will experience a panic attack.

Doctors cannot diagnose anxiety disorders but they can diagnose:

  • anxiety symptoms
  • anxiety disorders
  • panic attacks
  • panic disorders

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and do tests to rule out other health conditions with similar symptoms such as heart disease or thyroid problems.

To get a diagnosis your doctor may do:

  • a physical exam
  • blood tests
  • Heart tests such as an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
  • Psychological assessment or questionnaire

Talk to your doctor about other ways to treat anxiety and panic attacks. Here are some treatments they may discuss with you.

Counseling and psychotherapy

Talk therapy for anxiety and panic disorders can often use a combination of the following.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)Can help you see the things that worry you in a whole new way. A consultant can help you develop a strategy to manage triggers as they arise.
  • Cognitive therapyIt can help you identify and eliminate unhelpful thoughts that often lead to anxiety disorders.
  • Exposure therapyIncluding controlling exposure to situations that trigger fears and anxiety can help you learn to face those fears in new ways.
  • Relaxation techniquesIncludes breathing exercises guided imagery progressive relaxation biofeedback and self-training. Your doctor can talk to you through some of these methods.

Your doctor may recommend a separate conference group session or a combination of the two.


Examples of medications your doctor may prescribe are:

  • antidepressants,Examples are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
  • beta-blockers,This can help control some physical symptoms such as increased heart rate
  • anti-anxiety drugs,such as benzodiazepines a sedative drug that quickly suppresses symptoms

All of these drugs can have side effects. SSRIs and SNRIs are suitable for long-term use and may take a while to feel the effects. Benzodiazepines are for short-term use only because of the high risk of dependence.

Often your doctor will recommend a variety of treatments. They may also need to change your treatment plan over time.

You should speak with your doctor or other mental health professional to learn what you can do to prevent and treat symptoms associated with anxiety and panic. Creating a treatment plan and sticking to it during flare-ups can help you feel like you’re in control.

If you experience anxiety or panic attacks try the following:

  • Take slow deep breaths.As you feel your breathing quicken focus on each inhalation and exhalation. Feel your stomach fill with air as you inhale. Count down from four as you exhale. Repeat until your breathing slows down.
  • Recognize and accept what you are going through.If you’ve experienced anxiety or panic attacks you know it can be very challenging. Remind yourself that the symptoms will pass and you will be fine.
  • Practice mindfulness.Mindfulness-based interventions are increasingly used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Mindfulness is a technique that can help you ground your thoughts in the present moment. You can practice mindfulness by actively observing thoughts and feelings without reacting to them.
  • Use relaxation techniques.Relaxation techniques include guided imagery aromatherapy and muscle relaxation. If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks try doing something that relaxes you. Take a bath with your eyes closed or use the relaxing lavender.

Lifestyle changes

The following lifestyle changes can help you prevent anxiety and panic attacks and reduce the severity of symptoms when they occur:

  • Reduce and manage stressors in your life.
  • Learn how to identify and block negative thoughts.
  • Get regular, moderate exercise.
  • Practice meditation or yoga.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Join a support group for people with anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine intake and medication use.

Panic attacks are not the same as anxiety attacks. Although these terms are often used interchangeably only panic attacks are identified in the DSM-5.

Anxiety and panic attacks share similar symptom causes and risk factors. However panic attacks tend to be more intense and often accompanied by more severe physical symptoms.

If anxiety or panic-related symptoms interfere with your daily life you should contact a healthcare professional.

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