The terms anxiety attack vs. panic attack are often used interchangeably, but they are two very different things. While they can have some of the same symptoms, there are distinct differences in how they come on, how long they last, how they are triggered, and how they are treated.
There are some similarities between the two as well, such as risk factors, physical symptoms, and how to handle an attack. However, it is important to understand the difference between anxiety attack vs. panic attack so that you can accurately report symptoms and problems to your doctor. They are often treated in different ways, so it is important to know whether you are having anxiety attacks or panic attacks.
One of the biggest differences between anxiety attack vs. panic attack is how they come on. An anxiety attack usually has a gradual onset. Other symptoms of anxiety usually precede it. It is also usually caused by a specific situation that can be pinpointed as the cause for the anxiety attack.
On the other hand, panic attacks are spontaneous. They have an immediate onset, usually out of the blue, with no gradual build up. They can come on at any time, regardless of the situation going on around you. Most frequently no cause can be pinpointed as the reason for the panic attack.
However, some studies suggest that there are precursors to panic attacks. These precursors may not be noticeable to the patient if they are not paying close attention to their bodies. The study found that up to 45 minutes before a panic attack there were changes in respiratory and heart rate functions.
This does not mean that panic attacks have a cause necessarily. It simply shows that the body does build up to the panic attack, regardless of how sudden it may seem. However, these changes may not be noticeable to the patient, unless they are closely monitored with ambulatory monitoring.
Differences In Symptoms
There are some differences in symptoms between anxiety attack vs. panic attack. While the physical symptoms are similar, they can vary in intensity between the two types of attacks. Also, anxiety attacks usually come with more symptoms than panic attacks, because they have a gradual onset.
With an anxiety attack, there is a gradual onset of the attack. You will feel some symptoms of anxiety before the attack ever happens, as it comes on, and as it dissipates. You may have feelings of apprehension or worry, distress, restlessness, or fear. These symptoms usually start before the actual attack and persist long after the attack is over.
With a panic attack, the onset is immediate, and out of the blue, so you won't have the same symptoms as an anxiety attack. With a panic attack, you will feel debilitating fear. You will also have a feeling of being afraid of losing control. You may even have a fear of dying, as the physical symptoms of the attack may make you feel as though you are about to die. Panic attacks also tend to come with a feeling of detachment from the world around you, called derealization, or detachment from yourself, called depersonalization.
Physical Symptoms Of Both
The physical symptoms of anxiety attack vs. panic attack are the same. The difference here is in the intensity. One study found that anxiety attacks in which a specific situation or stimuli perpetuated the attack held stronger, more intense physical symptoms than panic attacks that came on out of the blue.
The most common physical symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks are:
Other symptoms that may occur with anxiety and panic attacks include:
Again, these physical symptoms can be felt with anxiety or panic attacks in equal measure. However, the symptoms could be more intense and last longer with anxiety attacks, because they are situational. If the situation persists, the attack could last quite some time.
Differences In Duration
There are distinct differences in the duration of anxiety attack vs. panic attack. A panic attack comes on out of the blue and lasts only about an average of ten minutes. They do not last long, and symptoms quickly dissipate after the attack is over.
Anxiety attacks can last much longer. They have a gradual onset, which can make them seem as though they last forever. Also, if the situation is causing the anxiety attack persists, the attack is likely to last until the situation changes, or you are removed from the situation. Symptoms of the anxiety attack, such as restlessness, worry, and distress, could last for some time after the anxiety attack is over.
Differences In Triggers
There are also differences in triggers between anxiety attack vs. panic attack. The exact causes or triggers of panic attacks are largely unknown. They come on out of the blue, with no discernable cause. Anything or nothing at all could trigger them. It is just simply hard to say with panic attacks because they seemingly have no cause when the patient looks back on why they had the panic attack.
With anxiety attacks, the triggers are usually situational. Someone who has extreme social anxiety might have an anxiety attack when faced with a crowd of people. Someone who has a phobia of closed spaces might have an anxiety attack in a small elevator. Someone who has dental anxiety might have an anxiety attack at the dentist.
There are many possible triggers for anxiety attacks. It depends on the person, and what triggers their anxiety the most. Different people have different fears, phobias, and levels of comfort with different situations. The things that trigger your anxiety attacks may be very different from the things that trigger someone else.
Risk Factors For Both
The risk factors of anxiety attack vs. panic attack are the same. If you have these risk factors, you are more likely to have anxiety attacks or panic attacks. However, keep in mind that little is known about what causes anxiety or panic attacks. These are just some of the common denominators that have been noted over time in various studies.
The risk factors for anxiety and panic attacks are:
In addition to these risk factors, some other common things have been noted about people that have anxiety and panic attacks. For example, women are much more likely to have anxiety or panic attacks than men. Some people also may have an anxious personality or inherent restlessness that can also put them at risk for these attacks.
Differences In Treatment
One of the biggest differences in anxiety attack vs. panic attack is in how they are treated. This is why it is important to understand the difference so that you can have an informed and productive conversation with your doctor or therapist. Because anxiety attacks are a symptom of anxiety and panic attacks have no discernable cause or reason, they must be approached differently.
Anxiety attacks are often treated as a symptom of overall anxiety. There are many treatments for anxiety that you can undergo that will help prevent anxiety attacks. There are medications for anxiety that can be taken on a routine basis to help keep you calm.
There are also good therapy options for treatment of anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy allows you to learn how to change your thinking and behavior through the expedient of being mindful of your thoughts and actions and making conscious decisions to change them. Cognitive behavioral therapy works well in managing anxiety attacks because you can learn to keep yourself calm and worry-free, which will stop the gradual onset of the anxiety attack.
Panic attacks must be treated differently. Because they may be infrequent and cannot often be predicted.
Therapy can be a helpful way to learn how to navigate panic attacks. Therapy can help you learn what to do when you have a panic attack to try to make it more bearable for you, and try to make the attack last as little duration as possible.
What To Do If You Have An Attack
What you do when you have an anxiety attack or panic attack can make a difference in how long it takes for you to calm down and return to normal. Handling an attack in the right way can help you alleviate symptoms and keep you safe while the attack is happening.
When you feel an attack coming on, try to take slow deep breaths. Focus on your breathing and don't allow it to quicken. It is also important that you recognize what is happening and accept it. Remind yourself that this has happened before, and the symptoms will pass.
You can also use relaxation techniques to try to get yourself through the attack. Try to visualize a peaceful place. Or you can try to ground yourself by looking around the room for five things that you can relate to your senses. Grounding yourself in this way can help you stop the detached feeling that often comes with panic attacks.
If you have had anxiety or panic attacks, you should seek out some professional help. While the tips in this article can help you identify if you are having anxiety attack vs. panic attack, only a licensed and experienced therapist can help you address the issues.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What does an anxiety attack feel like?
For those who live with an anxiety disorder, chronic anxiety is a given. As a result, panic attacks and anxiety attacks are, unfortunately, a common occurrence.
According to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), symptoms of an anxiety attack or panic attack might include the following:
You might notice other symptoms (like muscle tension or difficulty concentrating on other tasks) before, during, or after a panic attack. Each individual's response can differ from others, and each personal anxiety or panic attack can differ in the same way.
The sudden, intense panic attack symptoms often mimic the fight or flight response; the brain may perceive a threat even when there isn't one (or even if the said threat isn't actually a threat to our immediate safety).
Can an anxiety attack turn into a panic attack?
You've likely heard the terms anxiety attack and panic attack used interchangeably. Though similar and interconnected in many ways, anxiety attacks and panic attacks are not the same thing.
Chronic anxiety can undoubtedly lead to anxiety attacks or states of heightened anxiety. It may also cause panic attacks, and panic attacks may be triggered by the same sort of things that trigger your anxiety in general. A period of heightened anxiety leaves you more vulnerable, so it's not uncommon for panic attacks to evolve from this sort of emotional state.
But if anxiety attacks and panic attacks aren't the same, what's the difference? Be sure to check out our discussion of this topic in the guide above.
How long do panic attacks last?
Panic attacks generally last 5-20 minutes, but the length can vary from person to person. Some individuals can experience panic attacks for an hour or upwards. The DSM-5 criteria notes that panic attack symptoms usually peak within a few minutes.
How do you calm a panic attack?
When you're dealing with panic disorder symptoms or a panic attack, mindfulness skills or activities (those that help you focus on what's happening in the present), deep breathing exercises, and muscle relaxation exercises can help.
What works for you might be different than what works for other people, or even for most people. That's okay! For instance, some people might find that distracting themselves from their thoughts - talking with others, doing a hobby, etc. - is an effective way to calm themselves. Still, others might struggle to concentrate on anything other than their symptoms.
What helps panic attacks fast?
Here are some excellent activities to help relieve the symptoms of a panic attack quickly:
Like panic attacks, mental health conditions can be alarming. Suppose you're dealing with the symptoms of panic disorder or panic attacks. In that case, it's best to be medically reviewed by a healthcare professional. Once medically reviewed, you may be able to access treatment to help you feel better more consistently.
What triggers a panic attack?
Panic attacks can be triggered by specific scenarios that cause anxiety, or they may lack an exact cause or trigger. For many people with panic disorder or other anxiety related disorders (post traumatic stress disorder, for instance), panic attacks come on very suddenly, sometimes even in everyday life, and often with little explanation.
Those who deal with anxiety disorders, panic disorder, or other mental health conditions are more likely to experience panic attacks than others.
If you believe you're dealing with a mental health condition, it's always best to be medically reviewed by a professional. Sometimes other health conditions, like heart disease (to learn about how heart disease and anxiety interact, click here), may play a role in the treatment you receive and the experience you have with anxiety.
Is crying part of a panic attack?
Yes, crying can be a part of a panic attack. Panic attacks cause an individual to feel a sudden, intense sensation of fear or dread, so crying isn't an uncommon response. Other common symptoms include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, shaking, tingling, and numbness.
What helps panic attacks without medication?
Panic attacks and chronic anxiety, in general, can be addressed in lots of ways. Many individuals find success in practicing mindfulness skills and working to develop a plan to help in the moment during a panic attack. Mindfulness skills focus on teaching us how to focus on the moment and remove ourselves from a state of intense emotion. They're great tools for lessening feelings of anxiety or fighting a panic attack.
Of course, if you're dealing with the symptoms of panic disorder or panic attacks, it's best to be medically reviewed and receive the diagnosis or treatment of a healthcare professional.
After being medically reviewed, you can also rule out any other possible conditions, whether mental (other mental illnesses) or physical (heart disease or other cardiovascular issues are more common among those with anxiety).
What helps anxiety naturally?
The following are some easy, natural techniques to help curb your anxiety:
If you're dealing with symptoms frequently, especially if they're getting worse, be sure to try and be medically reviewed by a doctor.
What is the best medicine for anxiety and panic attacks?
Those who deal with an anxiety disorder, panic attacks, or other mental health conditions will likely find success in developing a specific treatment plan with a doctor. After receiving the treatment or diagnosis of a professional, and likely after some degree of cognitive behavioral therapy, it's likely that you'll see improvements in terms of your symptoms.
It's also important to remember that anxiety and panic attacks aren't treated the same by doctors, as anxiety attacks and panic attacks aren't the same. What's the difference? See our discussion in the guide above for more information!
What natural remedy is good for anxiety?
Here are some natural remedies for anxiety both in the moment and for your daily routine:
Though natural remedies are great for handling anxiety daily, they're not necessarily a replacement for being medically reviewed by a professional. If your symptoms are chronic or severe, it may be time to seek help.
What helps severe anxiety?
Those who deal with an anxiety disorder are often plagued by persistent or chronic anxiety symptoms, so much so that they significantly influence their ability to live normal lives.
If you're experiencing severe anxiety, it's likely that many of the simple methods we use to address anxiety - breathing exercises, stress management, mindfulness skills - may not be enough. Seeking out the help of a therapist or other mental health professional may be the best way to tackle severe symptoms.
What to drink to calm nerves?
When you're experiencing a lot of stress, anxiety, or otherwise feel unable to relax, many people find a hot drink of choice is a great way to unwind. Suppose you do decide to opt for something like coffee or tea. In that case, you might find it best to stick to decaffeinated blends - caffeine can sometimes amplify the feelings and sensations you'd like to avoid.
What vitamins help with anxiety?
Some people find that specific vitamins or supplements help boost their mood overall, help them sleep, or otherwise help them feel better equipped to deal with anxiety symptoms. If you're dealing with chronic anxiety, though, the best way to determine how to treat your symptoms is to be medically reviewed by a professional.
What can you take over the counter for anxiety?
If you're experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, you might also be experiencing adverse physical side effects (chronic pain, heart palpitations, nausea, etc.), and you'd like to find an easy remedy. But, for the sake of safety, it's best always to consult your doctor if you'd like specific recommendations for controlling your anxiety symptoms.