Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack: Know The Difference

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Individuals have commonly used both anxiety and panic attacks interchangeably, but there are different conditions that separate the two. Although similar in many symptoms that arise, specific different aspects can contribute towards an overall diagnosis. The DSM-5 does not list anxiety attacks specifically but does identify anxiety found in criteria of many other mental health diagnoses. Panic attacks can start from the individual experiencing anxiety symptoms but can quickly escalate to severe fear and sheer panic.

What is an anxiety attack?

Anxiety is one of the most alarming signals your physical body can send you. The purpose of anxiety being present in our lives is to alert the individual that they are in distress. Fear, nervousness, and worry can all contribute to the apprehension of what is unknown to us. Anxiety is one of the most common disorders that people struggle with or are diagnosed with. Limitations towards one’s age unfortunately doesn’t prevent someone from experiencing symptoms of anxiety. The key difference in an anxiety attack is the prolonged amount of time it takes for the attack to take place. Intensity is less in an anxiety attack opposed to a panic attack where the anxiety symptoms can last for up to days, weeks, or months. 

What is a panic attack?

If a person is experiencing a panic attack it can feel severely frightening and physically crippling. While anxiety attacks are usually linked to a specific trigger, a panic attack might come up unexpectedly for someone. Specifically, the intensity aspect of a panic attack symptoms can involve one to feel detached or as though they are not grounded. Panic attacks can also occur for people of all ages and can be destructive in one’s life if left untreated.

Prevalence and Statistics

Since the hit of the global pandemic from 2020, many individuals have experienced an increase in symptoms of anxiety that weren’t present before. But before the virus dominated the world, a large chunk of people were already experiencing symptoms of anxiety. Just in four months of 2020 alone, an increase of heightened anxiety took place. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) significant increase was observed in adults from 31.4% to 36.9% from August to December. Anxiety has been present in many individuals lives before the pandemic abruptly struck. The CDC also reports that the numbers from 2019 have increased approximately three times in 2020 than symptoms reported before Covid-19. 

Symptoms

If you believe one is experiencing either an anxiety attack or panic attack it is helpful to review the different in symptoms. 

Symptoms of anxiety attack:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Extreme worry and distress
  • Fear
  • Shaking
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of concentration
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Chest pain
  • Sleep disturbance

Symptoms of panic attack:

  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pounding heartbeat
  • Feeling of choking
  • Fear of dying

Causes

Many different reasons can be linked to what causes symptoms of anxiety attacks or panic attacks to be present for someone. Sometimes it cannot be expected in a panic attack to know what triggered the response, but in some cases, it can be related to specific triggers that prompt the emotional attack. 

The following causes can be recognized as the following:

  • Financial stress
  • Employment/Career stress
  • Caffeine
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
  • Past or current trauma
  • Medications
  • Various phobias
  • Social stress
  • Driving
  • Chronic pain

Diagnosis and Risk Factors

If the symptoms of anxiety become unmanageable for you or a loved one, it is encouraged for you to consult your medical provider or mental health professional. Remember professionals cannot diagnose anxiety but can recognize and acknowledge the prevalence of anxiety present for an individual. Different inquiries that may be explored to assess the symptoms can include:

  • The duration of symptoms
  • The severity of symptoms
  • Family history of anxiety or mental illness
  • Questions regarding medication
  • Questions regarding substance use
  • Questions regarding medical concerns/issues

Risk factors are also important to take note of when addressing both anxiety attacks and panic attacks. These factors include:

  • Ongoing stresses in personal/professional life
  • Co-occurring diagnosis, or other mental health issues
  • Chronic medical conditions
  • Problems with alcohol or drug use
  • Experienced trauma
  • Witnessed trauma
  • Family members with anxiety symptoms
  • Anxious personality

Treatment

panic attack

If symptoms of anxiety are seeking to be treated, there are a variety of routes you can choose to navigate your treatment plan. Different approaches can include individual therapy, group therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.

  • Psychotherapy most commonly utilizes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help treat symptoms of anxiety. CBT helps target how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected. Distorted thoughts can easily become entangled in the cycle and can lead one to feel trapped. Using the CBT approach can help individual identify and shift unhealthy thinking patterns to more healthy and positive thoughts. 
  • Medications can be integrated in a person’s treatment at the discretion of a professional psychiatrist that can evaluate the severity of mental health symptoms. 
  • Lifestyle changes can help manage one’s stress, create healthy sleep hygiene, eating, exercise habits, creating a sense of community, and carving out time for self-care and hobbies/interests. 

Coping Skills

Here are some ways to help reduce symptoms of anxiety attacks or panic attacks to help you get back on track:

  • Practicing mindfulness – Acknowledging what is happening can help remind yourself that the feelings can soon pass and won’t last forever.
  • Relaxation techniques – Guided meditations, progressive muscle relaxation techniques, getting a massage, and guided imagery can help reduce anxiety.
  • Breathing techniques – Deep breathing, box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, and alternate nostril breathing can all contribute to the person transferring focus from racing thoughts to sinking more into their physical body and becoming grounded in themselves.
  • Spending time in nature – Going for a walk, riding a bike, or hiking can all be different ways an individual can get a breath of fresh air and be mindful and present in their environment/surroundings.