The Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks

The Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Everyone feels anxious once in a while, but what separates anxiety from panic attacks is the level of intensity.

You might say that anxiety and panic attacks cause similar symptoms. Nevertheless, these symptoms stem from different things the two health afflictions trigger in your body. Both attacks activate your nervous system, causing physical and emotional symptoms.

Mental health professionals differentiate the diagnosis based on definitions found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).

The differences highlighted in the DSM assist in distinguishing the two. 

What is a Panic Attack

What is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks are intense episodes of fear which feel like impending doom. It comes suddenly and has characteristics of discomfort, physical and mental symptoms.

The symptoms include overwhelming fear and alarming physical signs like a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea.

Panic attacks are either expected or unexpected. Unexpected panic attacks occur with no apparent cause. External stress factors like phobias trigger expected panic attacks.

Panic attacks can happen to anyone, but recurring attacks can evolve into a panic disorder if left untreated.

What Are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks relate to the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the “fight or flight” response in the face of danger.

Symptoms can be gradual and intensify after about ten minutes. They include;

Mental symptoms

  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Depersonalization (feeling detached from self) and derealization (feelings of unreal surroundings)
  • Fear of imminent death

Physical Symptoms

  • Chest pains or discomfort
  • Difficulty in breathing and swallowing
  • Shortness of breath and hyperventilation
  • Pounding heartbeat or heart palpitations
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
  • Chills, shaking, hot flashes, and sweating
  • Nausea and stomach pain
  • Tingling, numbness
  • Feelings of choking or smothering

The overwhelming fear of having another panic attack can be a sign of a panic disorder.

While panic attacks are not lethal, some symptoms are similar to those of mortal conditions like heart attacks.

The symptoms gradually subside after 10 minutes, but several panic attacks can occur back-to-back, making an attack seem to last longer.

If you have the symptoms of a panic attack, it’s important to seek proper medical attention to rule out the possibility of a heart attack.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

There is no known cause of panic attacks, but they can be relative to stress and sometimes underlying mental health conditions. Examples of mental health conditions include panic disorders, phobias, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) are also relative.

What is an Anxiety attack

What is an Anxiety Attack?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease.

It is part of the emotional and protective responses hardwired into us, often referred to as anticipatory anxiety.

Anxiety can be a result of worrying about events like illness or death or just simple everyday things.

An anxiety attack is not much of an attack but an episode of intense worry, fear, and dread that triggers physical symptoms. They often feel more predictable, as you know, can feel them coming even before they happen.

Symptoms of An Anxiety Attack

Unlike sudden panic attacks, anxiety attacks follow a period of excessive worry. Symptoms can become more intense over some time, which could be a few minutes or hours. They are generally less intense than those of panic attacks.

Anxiety attack symptoms last longer than those of a panic attack and can last extended periods, days, even weeks at a time. They include:

Mental Symptoms

  • Restlessness and sleep disturbances
  • Feelings of worry and distress
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability

Physical Symptoms

  • Getting startled easily
  • Dizziness and chest pain
  • Fear
  • Numbness or tingling in hands and legs
  • Pounding heartbeat and shortness of breath
  • Fatigue and muscle tension
  • Heightened startle response

What Causes Anxiety Attacks?

Causes of anxiety attacks include driving and stress from either work or social situations. Excessive intake of caffeine or drug and alcohol withdrawal can also cause attacks.

They can be due to chronic pain or chronic illnesses such as thyroid disorders or heart disease.

Some supplements and medications also factor in and phobias or memories of past trauma as well.

Key Differences Between Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks

  • Anxiety attacks are often related to a stressful or threatening event. Panic attacks often happen out of the blue and aren’t always triggered by stress factors.
  • Anxiety attacks can be mild, moderate, or severe and can happen even as you go about your day. Panic attacks, however, are often severe and manifest by disruptive symptoms.
  • Physical symptoms of a panic attack are more intense than symptoms of anxiety.
  • Anxiety attacks can build gradually, but panic attacks come suddenly.
  • A panic attack can trigger the fear of getting another attack. Such occurrences can affect your behavior by making you avoid places or situations where you think there’s a risk of another panic attack, for example.


Anxiety is a common mental health condition, occurring more frequently in women than in men. Although it can affect day-to-day life, very few people who experience anxiety seek medical intervention.

There are effective treatments available, so if you have symptoms of either anxiety or panic attacks, talk to your doctor about it.

A doctor’s evaluation involves several things. They include;

  • Taking your medical history
  • Finding out the intensity, duration, and effects of the symptoms
  • Physical examination
  • Lab tests to eliminate any other medical conditions that could be causing the symptoms.

Based on the evaluation, the professional can then make a diagnosis based on the DSM-5.

Risk Factors or Predisposing Factors

Having anxiety can increase the risk of getting a panic attack, but it doesn’t always mean it will occur. Anxiety and panic attacks have similar risk factors. These include:


Both attacks can result from experiencing or witnessing traumatic events, either as a child or as an adult.


Experiencing a stressful life event, such as death or divorce, can trigger these attacks. They can also result from ongoing stress, like work, family conflicts, or financial challenges.

Chronic medical conditions

Living with a chronic health condition or life-threatening illness can trigger either or both attacks.


Having an anxious personality predisposes you to these attacks

Other risk factors are;

  • Underlying mental health disorders like depression
  • Close relationship to people with anxiety or panic disorders
  • Drugs and alcohol

Treatment for Panic and Anxiety Attacks

Successful treatment is available for both panic and anxiety attacks. Some known treatment options are therapy and psychotherapy, prescription medication, and self-help strategies.

Psychotherapy helps you in many ways;

  • To understand your symptoms
  • To come up with ways to manage them
  • To work through past trauma and experiences
  • To generate a clear perspective and way forward.

Medication assists you keep the symptoms under control.

Self-help techniques help you work to manage the symptoms gradually.

You can try one or a combination of these three for an all-rounded treatment.

Recommended Self-Help Strategies by Mental Health Therapists

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness helps you stay grounded in the present moment. Grounding refers to purposefully focusing on items in our environment. For instance, focus on how a chair feels, how a book feels or how a picture looks. Concentrate on something familiar and safe creates a sense of comfort that allows our bodies to relax.

You can focus intently on any of the five senses, what you see, feel, hear, smell or taste.

Breathe Slowly and Deeply

Breathing is a form of grounding that calms the body, so try and focus on your breath. Feel it in your nose, down your throat, into your lungs. Try to slow down your breathing by counting from one to five. Picture yourself filling up a balloon and deflating it with your breaths.

Acknowledge What Is Happening; Talk to Yourself

The symptoms of a panic or anxiety attack can be alarming. Acknowledge the situation and remember that signs are temporary and will soon pass can reduce anxiety and fear.

Be kind to yourself, remind yourself that you’re okay. If that doesn’t work, try playing mental games such as favorite song, place, or alphabet backward.

Preventative Steps for Both Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks.

  • Manage stress and maintain a positive attitude
  • Exercise regularly and eat healthy, balanced meals
  • Get enough sleep, at least 8 hours a night
  • Practice relaxation and breathing techniques like meditation and yoga
  • Build a support system with friends and family
  • Limit stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine
  • Discover the triggers
  • Take time off each day to do enjoyable activities

Panic and anxiety can be stressful and disruptive, but self-help strategies reduce the intensity of your symptoms. Therapy and medication can prevent or reduce the occurrence of future episodes.

The sooner you seek help, the better the outcome of the treatment.

If you’re struggling with anxiety on any level, substance abuse, addiction, or any mental health issue, Tikvah Lake is the haven for you. It’s a recovery center for executives and professionals that offers small, personalized programs.

All services are tailor-made for every individual, with support and treatment for anyone with underlying mental health issues. A team of mental health professionals uses various therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), to treat addictions, serious mental illnesses, and mental health problems.


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