In everyday conversations with friends and family, you may use the terms “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” interchangeably – but is there any difference between the two terms? The answer depends on how you view and describe your anxiety symptoms. Regardless of how you experience anxiety, it can put a serious damper on your daily routine.
While the experience and treatment of panic attacks vary widely across individuals, there are several commonalities, such as genetic risk factors and environmental stressors, that increase the likelihood of anxiety, panic attacks, and related conditions.
Whether you’re discussing your anxiety with healthcare professionals, friends, or family, it’s important have the proper language to report your symptoms and concerns. By understanding the differences between generalized anxiety and panic attacks, you’re more likely to receive a diagnosis and treatment plan that supports your mental health goals. I
If you’re ready to start working toward those goals, read on to learn more about the differences between anxiety and panic attacks, what these episodes indicate about your mental health, and how to manage the major symptoms of anxiety and panic disorder.
Anxiety Attacks Vs. Panic Attacks: What’s The Difference?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), panic attacks can also be described as anxiety attacks; but for diagnostic purposes, it helps to understand even small differences between the two terms.
Anxiety attacks are generally associated with people who have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or a related anxiety disorder. “Anxiety attack” is not a medically recognized term, so most healthcare professionals use panic attack to describe the sudden onset of anxiety symptoms. That said, the concept of an anxiety attack is still valid: healthcare professionals recognize that people often use this phrase to describe any intense experience of anxiety. Everyone experiences anxiety differently, so your experience of an anxiety attack will differ from that of a friend, family, therapist, or doctor.
The takeaway? You can use these two terms separately, but it’s also okay to use them interchangeably. Panic attacks are most commonly associated with panic disorder, which falls under the umbrella of anxiety disorders.
Whether you’re struggling with panic attacks or generalized anxiety, there are ways to recover from these episodes and achieve your daily goals without the threat of panic. Knowledge is power – so read on to learn more about the major differences between panic attacks and anxiety disorder, how you might experience the symptoms, and how to treat both conditions.
Difference #1: Panic Attacks Are Sudden And Brief
For many people, one of the most frightening qualities of panic attacks is not knowing when or why they’ll begin. The surge of panic usually comes without warning or any obvious reason, per the APA. Most panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes, although some people report attacks that last up to an hour, according to the National Health Service (NHS).
As a condition, anxiety tends to last much longer. In anticipation of a bad outcome or worrisome event, people with anxiety may experience muscle tension and a general feeling of uneasiness for an extended period of time. Whereas anxiety is “what we experience when we are worrying about some future event,” panic attacks are associated with an abrupt “sense of threat happening right now,” says Dr. Ricks Warren, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.
Difference #2: Panic Attacks Are Less Common And More Severe
In general, panic attacks are rarer and more severe than everyday feelings of anxiety. As a mental health condition, GAD and related anxiety disorders typically present with a broader set of anxiety symptoms, which tend to develop more gradually than panic attacks. Anxiety is also a fairly common mental health condition: in the U.S., an estimated 40 million adults experience significant anxiety each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Difference #3: Our Bodies React Differently To Anxiety And Panic
While it’s usually difficult for individuals to pinpoint an exact cause of their panic attacks, some studies suggest that there are biological precursors to these episodes, which may not be noticeable without paying close attention to your body. For example, one study found that as early as 47 minutes before a panic attack, people experienced significant changes in their respiratory functions. In scientific terms, these out-of-the-blue panic attacks are “uncued,” compared to cued panic attacks that occur in response to a specific situational trigger. Regardless of their origin, panic attacks trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response without an appropriate cause or threat.
Compared to panic, anxiety is a more low-level, persistent condition, characterized by excessive worry over an imminent event or even smaller, lower-stakes events, such as being late or making a mistake at work. The common symptoms – fatigue, restlessness, and irritability – are often chronic and longer-lasting than feelings of panic, but can still take a toll on your physical and mental health.
Risk Factors For Panic Disorders And Anxiety
If you have any of these risk factors, you may be predisposed to develop panic disorder or another form of anxiety disorder. Keep in mind that while these are common contributors to anxiety, everyone’s story is different. By connecting with a doctor and therapist, you can develop a better understanding of the origins of your symptoms and how to treat them.
Certain physical conditions, including thyroid problems and heart conditions
Personality traits such as shyness or discomfort with unfamiliar people and other social situations
Ongoing stress or traumatic events
Family history of anxiety disorders or other mental health conditions
History of substance use
Because panic disorder and other forms of anxiety have several risk factors, many doctors recommend similar approaches to treatment. Note that your treatment plan will be shaped by discussions with your doctor and your personal mental health goals, in addition to any relevant risk factors.
Treatment For Panic Attacks And Anxiety
While anxiety and panic attacks are very different emotional conditions and differ in intensity, their physical symptoms are similar – which means they can be managed with many of the same treatment methods.
If you’re seeking treatment for anxiety and/or panic attacks, you may have experienced some of the following symptoms:
Heart palpitations or increased heart rate
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath
Fear that you’re dying or losing control
These symptoms might surface during prolonged bouts of anxiety or in the form of panic attacks, which last only briefly. That said, both anxiety and panic attacks are frightening and unsettling experiences; but they’re completely valid responses to stressful life events, shaped by a mix of environmental and biological risk factors. When you seek treatment for your symptoms, your doctor or therapist can help you learn more about panic attacks and other anxiety disorders, which helps you regain control of your stress responses.
Therapy For Anxiety And Panic Attacks
For many people with the symptoms described above, the following forms of therapy can be highly effective and long-lasting treatments:
Exposure Therapy: For people with anxiety disorders or specific phobias, exposure therapy challenges them to confront and ultimately overcome those fears through direct exposure. A licensed therapist may employ relaxation exercises, imagery, and other tools to guide you through the exposure.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Many studies indicate the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches patients how to change negative thinking patterns – and, in turn, negative or unhelpful behaviors – by identifying and modifying their thoughts in a process known as cognitive restructuring. For panic attacks in particular, CBT helps people identify the triggers of their attacks so they can alter their thinking, behaviors, and reactions.
Promisingly, studies indicate that online CBT is just as effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression as in-person CBT. In a 2012 study, for instance, researchers found that individually tailored, Internet-based treatment led to significant improvements in anxiety symptoms in a group of young adults and adults with panic attacks. Importantly, the participants’ progress remained stable after completing the treatment, which indicates that online CBT can have lasting, positive effects for people of various ages.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, online therapy has become a popular option for people who want to improve their mental health but may lack the time or finances for traditional, in-person therapy. If you’re living with panic disorder, you may appreciate the ability to connect with an online therapist from a safe, comfortable space in your home, especially as you work through the major sources and symptoms of your panic attacks.
Medication For Anxiety And Panic Attacks
Importantly, therapists cannot prescribe medication for any health conditions. However, your therapist may work in tandem with your doctor, who can recommend anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants depending on the severity of your symptoms. Again, be sure to consult with your doctor and medical team before incorporating any medication into your treatment plan, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re unfamiliar with any of their suggestions.
While many of the telltale physical symptoms are similar, everyone experiences and defines anxiety in their own way. A therapist can help you better understand your symptoms so that you have the knowledge – and, most importantly, the confidence – to make positive changes to your thought patterns, lifestyle, and overall approach to stressful situations.
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