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Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack: What You Need to Know

man struggling with panic attack vs anxiety attack

There are a lot of different terms to consider when it comes to anxiety and anxiety disorders. One of the most confusing distinctions may be panic attack vs. anxiety attack. Are these terms the same? And if not, how do you know which one you are experiencing?

At Integrative Life Center, we can help answer your questions about anxiety and panic. We also can make sure you get the proper treatment for these issues, so you don’t have to worry about them controlling your life any longer.

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks can share many of the same symptoms. Because of this overlap, it can be challenging to determine which one is causing you problems. You may even experience both an anxiety attack and a panic attack at the same time.

Panic Attacks

A panic attack happens suddenly and involves intense, overwhelming fear. It also includes physical symptoms like a rapid heartbeat, nausea, or shortness of breath, which can be frightening. 

Panic attacks can be expected or unexpected. When expected, they are usually due to a phobia or other external stressors. 

Unexpected panic attacks can be even more frightening because you have less understanding of what is happening. Many people think they are having a heart attack or losing control of their thinking. It’s not what’s happening, but with no prior experience with panic attacks, it can certainly feel like it. 

Stressors don’t always trigger panic attacks. They can happen out of the blue.

Mental health professionals recognize that panic attacks may occur within another anxiety disorder. It is also possible to be diagnosed with panic disorder if the attacks happen without a concurrent anxiety disorder. Because stress frequently causes panic attacks, they can happen even if you don’t meet the full criteria for diagnosis with an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks are less intense than panic attacks. When there is an anxiety attack it involves distress, worry, and fear and typically happens when you anticipate an event, experience, or stressful situation. 

Anxiety attacks are more subjective and open to interpretation. Because of this, one person may describe an anxiety attack with entirely different symptoms from another person’s experience. 

Anxiety attacks are typically less severe and are much more common than panic attacks. They can be mild, moderate, or severe. When they are mild to moderate, the person is usually able to go about their daily routine. 

A black male doctor stands in scrubs with a scrub cap, leaning against a wall with his hand over his mouth looking distressed

Symptoms of Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

The symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety attacks vary. But there are some typical symptoms for each.

Panic attack symptoms include:

  • Fear
  • Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy
  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Detachment from the world or oneself 
  • Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Tightness in throat
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Nausea, stomach pain, or upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Dizziness

Anxiety attack symptoms include:

  • Worry and apprehension
  • Distress
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of concentration
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fear
  • Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Tightness in throat
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Nausea, stomach pain, or upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Dizziness

Differences Between Panic and Anxiety

Anxiety attacks are often brought on by something stressful happening in your life, while panic attacks can happen out of the blue. Panic is always severe and disruptive, while anxiety can be mild or moderate, as well as severe. 

Physical symptoms are typically more intense during a panic attack because the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response takes over. Anxiety tends to build gradually, but panic often comes on suddenly. 

Panic attacks often bring about fear of having another attack, leading to the person avoiding places or situations that they think could trigger an attack. Symptoms of a panic attack peak after 10 minutes and gradually subside, while anxiety attacks can last from minutes to hours but are less severe than a panic attack.

Possible Causes of Panic and Anxiety

There is no clear cause for unexpected panic attacks. However, expected panic attacks and anxiety attacks share some common triggers.

Triggers of panic and anxiety attacks include: 

  • A stressful job
  • Social situations
  • Driving
  • Phobias (excessive fears of situations or objects)
  • Memories or reminders of a traumatic experience
  • Chronic illnesses or chronic pain
  • Alcohol or substance withdrawal
  • Caffeine
  • Medications
  • Thyroid issues

Risk Factors for Panic and Anxiety

Like the causes, panic and anxiety have similar risk factors that can increase the likelihood of an attack.

Risk factors for panic and anxiety include:

  • Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events 
  • Stressful life events like a divorce or loved one’s death
  • Ongoing stress and worries related to work, family, relationships, or financial issues
  • Having an anxious personality
  • Having depression or another mental disorder
  • Family history of anxiety or panic disorders
  • Alcohol or substance use
  • Having a chronic medical condition like heart disease or diabetes
  • Major life changes
  • History of childhood physical or sexual abuse

A white woman in a black shirt sits at her desk drinking a glass of water with her other hand on her chest

When Panic and Anxiety Become a Disorder

Sometimes anxiety remains at a level that a person can cope with. But, other times, these behaviors become disordered. When this happens, the person needs help managing their symptoms and learning healthier ways of coping.

There are various anxiety disorders with different characteristics and symptoms, including:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Characterized by persistent and excessive worry and anxiety over activities or events, including daily, routine things. The worry is out of proportion to the event.
  • Panic Disorder. Repeated panic attacks, which may include feelings of impending doom, physical symptoms, and avoidance of situations that may trigger another attack.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder. Previously known as social phobia, this disorder involves high levels of anxiety, fear, and avoidance of social situations that may cause self-consciousness, embarrassment, or fear of being judged by others.
  • Specific Phobia. Characterized by extreme anxiety in the presence of a specific object or situation. Phobias also can trigger panic attacks in some people. Examples of specific phobias are arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces).
  • Agoraphobia. Fear and avoidance of public places that may cause one to feel panicked, trapped, or helpless. This fear often results in them not leaving home.
  • Separation Anxiety. Children with this disorder feel excessive anxiety beyond what is typical for their developmental level when separated from parents or other caregivers.
  • Selective Mutism. A failure to speak in certain situations like at school, work, or social situations while speaking when at home, with close family, or other comfortable environments.

Treatment for Panic and Anxiety Attacks

Is there a difference in the treatment of panic attacks vs. anxiety attacks? Because the two are related and have similar causes, the treatment is also much the same.

Psychotherapy can be effective when treating panic attacks and anxiety. Together with a therapist, you can identify the things that trigger your anxiety and new, healthy ways to cope with anxiety symptoms. 

If you can keep anxiety in check, the likelihood of having a severe panic or anxiety attack reduces. Some techniques that may be useful in controlling anxiety are deep breathing and mindfulness.

Some of the most successful treatment methods for panic and anxiety attacks are:

Some people with panic and anxiety attacks also may benefit from medication. Mental health professionals can help reduce symptoms of severe or recurrent attacks with anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressant medications. Professionals may prescribe medication with psychotherapy or alone.

Integrative Life Center can work with you to create a treatment plan that fits your needs if you are experiencing panic attacks, anxiety attacks, or an anxiety disorder. Please contact us today so we can help.


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