Posted on December 08, 2020
Panic and anxiety attacks share many traits, but are actually very different diagnoses. Read on to see what differentiates a panic attack from an anxiety attack.
Racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, and a heightened sense of fear –– the tell tale signs of a panic attack. Or, is it more of an anxiety attack? The terms "anxiety attack" and "panic attack" are often used interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing. This is understandable given that some of the symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety are similar. However, panic and anxiety have different features, and behavioral health professionals use these terms for specific and separate symptoms and disorders for a reason. By using a therapy matching service, these professionals can help develop therapy of anxiety that works for you to help with recurring panic attacks or anxiety attack symptoms.
Generally speaking, panic attacks are an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort accompanied by other physical and mental symptoms. Anxiety, on the other hand, is part of the emotional and protective responses hardwired into the human body. However, when anxiety is experienced to the point of disrupting everyday life, it becomes a problem that requires treatment.
A panic attack is an intense and sudden feeling of fear, terror, or discomfort accompanied by several other mental and physical symptoms. The symptoms of panic attacks are often so extreme that they cause severe disruption to a person’s day or life. Unexpected panic attacks are common. A panic attack is characterized by four or more of the following symptoms:
Feelings of unreality (derealization)
Feeling detached from oneself (depersonalization)
Fear of losing control or going crazy
Fear of dying
Heart palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Feeling of choking
Nausea or abdominal distress
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
Panic attacks usually hit hard and fast without any obvious, immediate trigger. In some cases, they are explained because the fear is caused by a known stressor, such as a phobia. Panic attack symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes and then subside, though some may last longer or occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins. Following an attack, it is not unusual to feel stressed, worried, out-of-sorts, or on edge for the remainder of the day.
Conversely, anxiety gradually intensifies over a period of time and is highly correlated with excessive worry about some potential danger—whether real or perceived. If the anticipation of something builds up, and the high amount of stress reaches a level where it becomes overwhelming, it may feel like an "attack." The symptoms of anxiety may include the following:
Increased startle response
Increased heart rate
While some symptoms of anxiety are definitely similar to those associated with panic attacks, they are generally less intense. Unlike a panic attack, the symptoms of anxiety may be persistent and very long-lasting—days, weeks, or even months
Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about something that is about to happen. The first day of school, going on a first date, or giving a presentation at work may cause most people to feel a sense of dread. Anxiety isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, it’s a survival mechanism to help you detect danger. Most of the time, we feel anxious when there isn’t a real threat to our lives, but normal stress like moving to a new place, starting a new job, or taking a test. This type of anxiety is unpleasant, but it may also be motivating when it comes to work or tasks. Ordinary anxiety is a feeling that comes and goes, but does not interfere with your everyday life.
However, when feelings of anxiety are constant, last for longer than six months, and are interfering with daily life, an anxiety disorder might be the culprit. In the case of an anxiety disorder, the feeling of fear may be with a person all the time. It is intense and sometimes debilitating. In extreme cases, it may prevent a person from even leaving their home and, if left untreated, will only worsen. Anxiety disorders are the most common form of emotional disorder and can affect anyone at any age.
Mental health professionals and physicians base their diagnosis on definitions found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the DSM-5. Though anxiety and panic attacks may feel the same at times, the differences outlined in the DSM help identify and distinguish them.
The DSM-5 uses the term "panic attack" to describe the hallmark features associated with the condition known as panic disorder. However, it should be noted that panic attacks may occur in other psychiatric disorders, and it is also possible to have a panic attack if you have no disorder at all.
The term “anxiety attack,” on the other hand, is not even defined in the DSM-5. Rather, "anxiety" is used to describe a core feature of several illnesses identified under the headings of anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and trauma- and stressor-related disorders.2
Some of the most common disorders under these three headings include panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and general anxiety disorder.
In broad terms, the differences between panic and anxiety are best described in terms of the intensity of the symptoms and length of time the main symptoms occur.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions, affecting an estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults each year. Unfortunately, even though anxiety can have a significant impact on a person's life, only around 20% of people who experience symptoms seek treatment.
Effective treatments are available. There is no reason to live in fear or discomfort. A good place to start looking for treatment is a physician. It is so important to first consult a doctor when experiencing symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks. During an evaluation, a doctor will take a medical history, a physical exam, and may run lab tests to help rule out any medical illnesses that might be contributing to symptoms. They may also ask questions about symptoms including their intensity, duration, and impact on normal daily functioning. Based on the evaluation, your doctor may then make a diagnosis based on criteria found in the DSM-5.
Whether the issue is panic, persistent anxiety, or both, effective treatment is available. Some of the most common treatment options include anxiety therapy, prescription medications, and self-help strategies. It’s ok to start with one or jump into a combination of methods. They will all help in different ways.
Medications can assist in reducing symptoms short term while also leveraging other longer-term approaches. Some common medications include antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, and benzodiazepines.
Wondering how to help someone with anxiety or help yourself right now? Self-help techniques, such as breathing exercises, aromatherapy, meditation, and progressive relaxation, can be beneficial in working through symptom management at a manageable pace. It’s also nice to have tools that don’t require anything other than time and space. Lifestyle changes such as implementing a better diet, exercise plan, work/life balance, and limiting alcohol consumption can have a major impact in reducing everyday stressors that compound over time.
Psychotherapy is really the most effective, long-lasting treatment for anxiety and panic attacks. Anxiety therapy can help better understand symptoms, develop ways to manage them, work through past pain, determine a path for the future, and gain a clearer perspective that will allow for a more hopeful outlook.
Whether you’re experiencing panic attacks or moderate to severe anxiety, there is no reason to live in discomfort or fear. If you’re looking for an anxiety therapist to help with anxiety and/or panic attacks, Advekit can help get you matched today.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.