What’s The Difference: Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

A venn diagram showing the difference between panic attack vs anxiety attack

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

Experiencing occasional anxiety can be a normal part of life. Anxiety is simply the body’s response to a perceived threat of danger or a challenging situation. This can range from a job interview, a first date, or stress over finances. Experiencing anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad sign.

It’s when those feelings become frequent and begin to interfere with our daily activities that they become more problematic and may require professional attention.

Over time, consistent, underlying stress can escalate into an episode known as a panic or anxiety attack. While these attacks can be short-lived, the emotional and psychological effects of an attack can linger for much longer, impacting our overall quality of life.

Panic and anxiety attacks can be caused by both predictable or unpredictable threats, which might be real or just perceived threats. While the specific causes are unclear, there are a number of potential contributors to panic and anxiety attacks, including environmental stress, phobias, overuse of stimulants, exposure to trauma, or medication side effects.

While anxiety attacks and panic attacks share similar symptoms, causes and risk factors, there are several key differences between the two.

What is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks occur suddenly, and are often not related to an actual external threat. Unexpected panic attacks occur when feelings of intense anxiety or fear reach a peak, bringing thoughts of impending doom, along with severe physical symptoms, including shortness of breath, chest pains, and/or a rising heart rate. Because of the extreme nature of their physical symptoms, panic attacks are often confused with heart attacks. This, of course, brings even more anxiety or fear to the individual suffering from the attack.

Panic attacks can last anywhere from a few minutes to 30 minutes, with the physical or emotional effects lingering for up to a few hours.

Most people will have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetime, if any. Those with recurring panic attacks, or who spend time in intense fear of additional attacks, often suffer from panic disorder.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Panic attacks begin suddenly, and without warning. They can strike at any time, with symptoms usually peaking within minutes.

Common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • A heavy sense of impending danger
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pains
  • Heart palpitations
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hot flashes
  • Chills

What is an Anxiety Attack?

Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks usually have known triggers, and are often the result of a gradual, ongoing build-up of stress about a situation. The apprehension and worry about a particular area of life can generate an ongoing level of stress. When that stress reaches its peak, an anxiety attack will bring an overwhelming surge of panic, and a strong sense of losing control.

While anxiety attacks are often less intense than panic attacks, the symptoms can become more pronounced as the minutes or hours go by. They might even persist for days, weeks, or months.

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

Anxiety attacks typically follow an extended period of worry, which will reach its peak in the form of an attack. Common symptoms of an anxiety attack include:

  • A surge of overwhelming panic
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Trouble focusing on anything other than the present worry
  • Lightheadedness
  • Chest pains
  • Heart palpitations
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Shortness of breath

What is the Difference?

While panic and anxiety attacks share many of the same symptoms, the severity and speed of the attack is the key to sorting through their differences.

The key differences between anxiety and panic attacks:

  • Anxiety attacks often have clear triggers, while developing panic attacks occur more suddenly and without warning.
  • Panic attacks are sudden, fear-based episodes when there is no real danger present, while anxiety attacks have a clear, and often ongoing, trigger.
  • Panic attacks have more severe physical symptoms, and are often confused with heart attacks for this reason.
  • Anxiety attacks are much more common. Most people will have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetime, if any.

How to Stop a Panic Attack

While there is no cure-all for panic attacks, there are ways to make them shorter and less intense. If you think you may be experiencing a panic attack, try the following techniques:

Focus on your breathing

Rapid breathing sends a message to your brain that you’re in danger, turning on your fight-or-flight response. Slowing down your breathing will not only help to reduce the physical symptoms of the attack, but also the mental and psychological symptoms. Sit or lie down and close your eyes. Take several deep, long breaths in through your nose, and out through your mouth. If you can, hold each breath in for 5 seconds, and exhale for 5 seconds. Repeat for as long as necessary.

Distract your mind

Thinking about the attack will only make it worse. Have a list of go-to distractions ready in the event of a panic attack. These could include: listening to music, going for a walk outside, calling a friend, or playing with a pet.

Get grounded

Anxiety is thoughts-based. It’s easy to lose sense of the physical world around us when experiencing an attack. Ground yourself back into reality by engaging your senses. Focus on things you can see, touch, hear, smell or taste. Walk barefoot on the grass. Run your hands over nearby objects, describing what you feel. Take a bite of a food you love, taking note of how it tastes, its texture, its smell. The goal is to shift your thoughts back to the world around you.

Techniques for managing stress can be key in preventing panic or anxiety attacks in the first place. Try incorporating the following into your day to establish a solid defense against stress-induced attacks.

  • Get at least 8 hours of sleep each night
  • Practice yoga, meditation or Qi gong
  • Start a gratitude practice, journaling all of the things you are thankful for
  • Carve out time for yourself every day, even if just a few minutes reading or meditation
  • Get outside! Nature therapy is real – and it works!
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Find a support group
  • Limit stimulants, including alcohol and caffeine

Anxiety Treatment in Costa Mesa, CA

If anxiety or panic-related symptoms are affecting your everyday life, we can help! Barn Life Recovery provides holistic, community-based programming for treating anxiety and other mental health conditions. Our facility is a haven for people from all walks of life who are living with these issues. We specialize in non-pharmacological treatment with the goal to help you Love Life Again. Learn more about our anxiety treatment programs to see if we’re a good fit for you.

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