Panic and anxiety can feel like similar experiences. Both conditions activate your fight-or-flight response and can make you feel physically sick. But panic and anxiety are not interchangeable. There are important differences to be aware of when it comes to understanding panic attack vs. anxiety attack symptoms.
Anxiety is a normal stress response. It can even be helpful. Feeling anxiety about a job interview may prompt you to take special care in preparing or practicing potential interview answers with a friend.
But when feelings of anxiety are so intense they overwhelm you, or if they appear for no apparent reason, it could be a sign you have an anxiety disorder.
“Anxiety disorders make people feel intense fear, even when they know what they’re afraid of or worrying about isn’t rational,” William Feck, LPC-MHSP, NCC, Therapist at Integrative Life Center, said. “These disorders can cause people to avoid doing things or being around people because they’re so afraid of what might happen. They may start to isolate themselves in an effort to keep themselves safe from the imagined fears. They also may worry increasingly and passively think their worries keep negative things from happening.”
Anxiety disorders that could prompt an anxiety attack, include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Substance-induced anxiety disorder
- Specific phobias
Anxiety is a response to a perceived threat, but people with anxiety attacks typically react to imagined threats. Worries about the future or “what ifs” can cause an anxiety attack.
Taking a test at school, moving, or getting a new job are all regular life events that most people can get through without overwhelming feelings of anxiety. But, people with anxiety disorders may become debilitated by the high level of anxiety they experience related to events like these.
Understanding Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It may be one reason why people so often misunderstand the two conditions. Panic disorder causes repeated, sudden, and intense feelings of fear.
“People with panic disorders feel out of control of their minds and surroundings, so much so that the fear keeps them from functioning in their daily lives,” William said.
Panic attacks are a symptom of panic disorder. People who experienced childhood abuse or a traumatic event are at higher risk for panic disorder and panic attacks.
The Onset of Anxiety or Panic Attacks
Anxiety and panic attacks can begin during a time of high stress, but there isn’t always an identifiable trigger. People often describe these episodes as “coming from nowhere.” In both cases, the attacks start with uneasiness or extreme worry about random possibilities, such as suddenly thinking, “What if I lose my job?”
Anxiety disorders can affect anyone at any age. Even children can experience anxiety attacks. But the symptoms and behaviors of children with anxiety disorders may be different from those experienced by adults.
Causes of Anxiety Attacks
The exact cause of anxiety attacks is still unknown. Mental health experts believe many factors play a role in these episodes, including:
- Substance use
- Family history
- Changes in brain function
People who have family members with anxiety or panic disorders and individuals who have survived traumatic events, such as childhood abuse or the sudden loss of a loved one, are at higher risk of developing anxiety disorders.
Identifying Anxiety Attack Triggers
The triggers of an anxiety attack can be different for each person. A trigger is an emotion or experience that signals to the brain that something dangerous is near. Triggers may not be based on reality, but the feelings they elicit are real. Triggers may be expected or unexpected.
An expected trigger is one that has caused an attack in the past, such as getting stuck in traffic. If a person has had a panic attack while stuck in traffic, the idea of being in heavy traffic again may trigger anxiety.
An unexpected trigger is one that seems to come out of the blue. For example, a person with anxiety could feel stressed out while waiting in a long line. Even though long lines haven’t bothered them before, they’re running late and fighting to manage their anxiety symptoms on this specific day.
If the result is an anxiety attack, the individual may subsequently get anxiety from thinking about buying something from a busy store, not to mention actually walking into the store. In this way, the unexpected trigger becomes an expected trigger.
The effort to avoid triggers can limit a person’s enjoyment in life. It can cause them to isolate and avoid friends, family, and social events out of fear that they will have an anxiety attack in front of other people. Isolation can exacerbate feelings of depression and lead to even more mental health concerns.
Causes of Panic Attacks
Medical researchers haven’t found a definitive cause of panic disorder. The factors that scientists believe initiate anxiety attacks are the same factors that influence panic attacks. Like anxiety attack triggers, panic attack triggers can be both expected and unexpected.
Common triggers of panic attacks include:
- Pre-existing health conditions
- Substance or alcohol use disorder
- Social events
- Reminders of a past traumatic experience
- Unexpected changes in routine
For people with panic disorder, even the fear of having a panic attack can trigger an attack.
“Regardless of the specific cause of either type of attack, the disorders can be treated with the help of a mental health professional and you can learn to control the symptoms, including panic or anxiety attacks,” William stated.
Comparing Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack Symptoms
Panic and anxiety are closely related, and it’s possible to experience both anxiety and panic attacks. For example, the idea of starting a new job may cause an anxiety attack, and when you arrive at the new worksite on the first day, it could trigger a panic attack.
Emotional and physical symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks include:
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling faint
- Fear of dying
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth
- Hot flashes or chills
- Numbness or tingling
If these symptoms describe both experiences, you may wonder, “What’s the difference between a panic attack vs. anxiety attack?” Consider the following key differences.
One of the main differences is the intensity. Anxiety attacks can be mild to severe. They often build slowly, giving the person time to implement breathing exercises or other tools intended to lower stress levels. Panic attacks are sudden and severe.
Anxiety attacks typically peak in about 10 minutes but can last several hours as the symptoms slowly decline. Panic attacks set in and end much faster. They’re usually over in about 10 minutes.
Both anxiety and panic attacks can cause physical symptoms. But, severe physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat, hyperventilation, sweating, and nausea are more typical for a panic attack. Often, people who are having a panic attack feel afraid that they might be having a heart attack.
The emotional symptoms for both events are similar but can be more severe in panic attacks. People who experience panic attacks may feel overwhelmed, have a sense of doom, or have an urgent need to escape.
Anxiety attacks rarely cause cognitive symptoms. Panic attacks can cause a person to have flashing visions or feel disconnected from their body.
Risk Factors for Untreated Panic and Anxiety
Anxiety and panic attacks are serious mental health concerns that respond positively to treatment. Many people think or hope that their anxiety disorder will go away with time, but in many cases, symptoms get worse if left untreated.
Short-term effects of anxiety and panic attacks include:
- Problems at work or school
- Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships
- The need for frequent medical care
- Increased risk of developing an addiction
- Financial problems
- Loneliness and isolation
The long-term effects of untreated panic and anxiety are even more serious. Anxiety disorders can lead to depression and other psychiatric disorders. They also increase suicide risk.
“Panic or anxiety disorders won’t just disappear. They’re going to get worse over time if left untreated,” William stated. “You deserve help healing so you can live your most authentic life.”
Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: What’s the Difference in Treatment?
Clinicians don’t diagnose anxiety attacks, but they do diagnose anxiety disorders. Panic attacks are also a diagnosable occurrence. Treatment methods for both conditions may include a combination of modalities, including:
- Medications to control symptoms as you work through the cause
- Lifestyle changes to manage stress
- Self-help techniques, such as breathing exercises for relaxation
“Many options are available for treating panic or anxiety disorders,” William stated. “You only have to decide to take the step to get help. Then you can partner with a therapist to find the right course of treatment for you.”
Get Help for Panic and Anxiety Disorders
Panic and anxiety disorders can cause severe distress and leave you feeling out of control of your mind and body. Don’t let panic or anxiety attacks disrupt your life. Contact Integrative Life Center for more information about our anxiety disorder treatment programs.