What's the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack? Skip to main content

Your heart races, your palms dampen, and a wave of warmth surges through you. Such intense moments of unsettling sensation can disrupt your sense of calm. But is this a panic attack or simply a spike in your anxiety levels?

The terms “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” are often used interchangeably, despite their differences. They share a suite of symptoms, yet they are distinct in their severity and the time they last.

The distinction generally lies in the attack’s intensity and how long it lingers. Let’s explore how you can differentiate between the two and how we can cope.

Prevalence of Clinical Anxiety and Panic Disorders

Experiencing anxiety is a normal part of our instinctive response to potentially dangerous or high-pressure situations – it’s a natural defense mechanism.

“Anxiety can be a source of insightful information if we interpret it correctly,” according to Wendy Suzuki, a neural science and psychology professor at New York University and the author of Good Anxiety.

However, when anxiety intensifies to clinical levels, it becomes a concern. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America quotes that 40 million U.S. adults, or 19.1% of the population over 18, suffer from clinical anxiety. In children aged 3 to 17, about 7% encounter anxiety problems annually. The onset of symptoms typically occurs before the age of 21. It can range from generalized anxiety disorder to social anxiety, panic disorders, and phobias.

Whereas, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) acknowledges panic attacks and associates them with panic disorder. This particular disorder affects about 2.7% of U.S. adults.

While both “panic attacks” and “anxiety attacks” are phrases people use colloquially, it’s important to distinguish between the two clinically separate conditions.

So, how does one discern whether it’s a panic attack or simply a severe bout of anxiety? Let’s investigate it further to identify the characteristics of each.

Read More: How To Get Anxiety Medication

Key Differences between Anxiety Attack and Panic Episodes

Distinguishing between panic and anxiety attacks can be challenging due to their overlapping symptoms. However, getting a clear understanding of the differences can help in identifying them more accurately.

Experiencing a panic attack can be a profoundly distressing event, characterized by a sudden wave of intense fear and physical discomfort that seems to arise without warning.

Read More: Why Suicide Is Selfish: Is Killing Yourself Selfish?

Panic Attack

What Happens in a Panic Attack?

A panic attack happens suddenly and makes you feel very scared. It also comes with physical feelings like dizziness, troubled breathing, and sometimes strong chest pain.

How bad these feelings are and how they show up can differ for each person because everyone has their own levels of enduring distress or fear.

One important thing to know about panic attacks is that during one, you might feel like something really bad is going to happen, like a sensation of impending doom or acute terror.

During the episode, a person might sweat profusely, shake, and experience palpitations, where the heart pounds so fiercely it feels as though it could burst forth from the chest. Breathing may become difficult, dizziness may set in, and nausea can occur.

For some, the physical symptoms may be so severe that they mistake the event for a heart attack, fearing for their life.

Post-attack, it’s not uncommon for individuals to harbor a lingering sense of stress. They become concerned about potential future attacks or losing control.

What is their Duration and Onset?

Panic attacks can escalate quickly, peaking around 10 minutes after onset, generally resolving within half an hour. However, it’s not unusual for the residual effects to persist longer, sometimes for several minutes to an hour.

What are the Causes and the Triggers?

Triggers for panic attacks can be anticipated. They are linked to external stressors like phobias or self-criticism in specific situations. Nonetheless, they can even be unexpected, emerging without any apparent cause.

Though challenging, understanding and recognizing the triggers can be possible over time. For instance, one might notice that visits to a public area consistently provoke panic.

The cause of panic attacks may involve various factors, including neurochemistry, genetics, and hormonal influences. Personality traits like high levels of anxiety or neuroticism, as well as a family history of anxiety disorders, can predispose individuals to such experiences.

What are the Common Triggers?

Common triggers, although not exhaustive and varying from person to person, can include:

  • Stress from professional demands
  • Social interactions
  • Encounters with specific phobias
  • Recollection of traumatic events
  • Concerns over chronic illnesses
  • Substance withdrawal
  • Excessive caffeine intake
  • Financial strain
  • Relationship discord
  • Major life changes, like relocation or job transition

When do the Panic Attacks Usually Occur?

Panic attacks are unpredictable and can strike at any moment – during the day, while driving, at work or school, or even from sleep – startling you awake.

Read More: Exploring The Benefits Of Family And Individual Therapy

Anxiety Attack

What Happens in an Anxiety Attack?

Anxiety attacks, while not formally recognized within the DSM-V, often manifest through symptoms associated with other disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, health anxiety, social anxiety disorder, or specific phobias.

Typically, these episodes intensify as profound worry, fear, or distress, not abruptly but gradually. Individuals may become restless, irritable, and always feel a tight knot in their stomach. Muscle tension and sleep disturbances are common physical markers.

Despite the absence of panic attacks, anxiety can still significantly disrupt daily activities and well-being.

Is Anxiety a Long-lasting Condition?

Anxiety is frequently connected to the apprehension of a forthcoming event or situation. Anxiety doesn’t hit its peak in an instant. It’s more akin to a shadow that lengthens as the day goes on and might linger for days, weeks, or even months. The feeling doesn’t surge and then fade quickly.

Anxiety is more likely to be a constant, oppressive companion until the person either addresses the underlying issue or the feeling slowly recedes.

Why Do People Get Anxious?

The anxiety is a looming fear that something bad is going to happen—an event, an interaction, a challenge. It’s a worry about what’s to come, the thought that something will go awry.

For instance, a student may experience anxiety for weeks before an important test. The persistent tension they feel and how their mind races every time they enter the library to study affects their concentration and sleep.

Another example is someone with social anxiety who might feel intense fear and nervousness at the thought of attending a large gathering or speaking in public. They get sweaty palms and a racing heart just thinking about it due to social anxiety.

Sometimes, though, the cause of anxiety is difficult to identify. An individual may experience a constant state of worry that seems to lack a clear origin. It is just there, making every day feel like an uphill battle.

How General Anxiety Becomes a Panic Attack

People who regularly experience anxiety may sometimes find themselves in the throes of a panic attack. The fear of having a panic attack can in itself trigger anxiety, which might escalate into a panic attack.

Imagine someone who’s afraid of flying. Just stepping into an airport, they might be hit with a wave of anxiety. Their heart races, they feel dizzy, and this intense anxiety might spiral into a full-blown panic attack as they board the plane.

Similarly, someone with a fear of enclosed spaces could start feeling anxious upon entering an elevator, which could then lead to a panic attack.

What are Different Types of Anxiety Attacks?

Each type of anxiety disorder brings its own unique triggers and manifestations:

  • Someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) might find themselves constantly on edge about various aspects of life, from work performance to personal health.
  • An individual with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) could be caught in a loop of repetitive actions or thoughts. For instance, they will compulsively wash their hands or repeatedly check if the door is locked.
  • Those grappling with social anxiety might dodge social gatherings for fear of embarrassing themselves or being judged.
  • Specific phobias could range from an overwhelming fear of spiders (arachnophobia) to a terror of leaving one’s home (agoraphobia).
  • Separation anxiety often shows up in children who can’t bear to be apart from their parents, but it can also linger into adulthood.

These examples highlight how anxiety can influence an individual’s life, with varying degrees of intensity and duration. It also signifies the importance of addressing these symptoms. There’s a need to create awareness for developing empathy and extending support toward such individuals.

Are Panic Attacks Worse Than Anxiety Attacks?

Whether one is “worse” than the other can depend on factors like personal resilience, the presence of a supportive environment, individual perception of symptoms, and the effectiveness of management strategies.

For some individuals, the sudden and intense nature of panic attacks may feel worse because of the acute fear of dying or losing control. For others, the constant and pervasive nature of anxiety might feel worse because it can lead to ongoing distress and a decreased quality of life.

Both panic and anxiety attacks represent significant mental health challenges, and one should evaluate their severity within the context of each individual’s experience. It’s important for anyone suffering from either condition to seek professional help.

When Is It Time to Seek Professional Help or Support?

Seeking treatment or support becomes essential when the frequency, intensity, and duration of anxiety or panic attacks begin to interfere with your daily activities.

Here are some specific indicators that it is time to seek help:

  • Daily Functioning is Impaired: If attacks disrupt your ability to perform basic tasks at work, home, or school, it’s a strong indicator that professional help may be necessary.
  • Persistent and Intense Symptoms: Frequent attacks with severe symptoms that last for longer periods signify a need for professional support.
  • Low Energy: Changing lifestyle and avoiding activities to prevent attacks is a clear indication that it’s time to seek help. It can lead to a restrictive life.
  • Physical Health Concerns: When physical symptoms, such as chest pain or shortness of breath, frequently arise and cause significant distress.
  • Emotional Well-being: If there is a decline in your emotional well-being, particularly if feelings of hopelessness or depression emerge.

It’s also worth noting that seeking support early can often lead to better outcomes. Treatment options can include therapy (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy), medication, lifestyle changes, and support groups. Mental health professionals can offer strategies for managing symptoms and improving overall well-being. If you’re experiencing any of the above signs, it’s advisable to reach out to a healthcare provider for a professional assessment.

Panic and Anxiety Diagnosis Using DSM-5 Criteria

For the diagnosis of panic attacks or anxiety disorders, mental health professionals rely on criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

Here’s how the diagnostic process typically takes place:

  • Clinical Interview: The doctor discusses with the patient to understand the nature, timeline, and impact of the symptoms.
  • Psychological Assessment: A mental health specialist evaluates symptoms to determine if they align with the DSM-5 guidelines for anxiety or panic disorders.
  • Medical Examination: A physical exam is conducted to rule out other conditions that could be causing the symptoms, such as thyroid issues or heart problems.
  • Diagnostic Tests: Hormonal levels are checked through blood tests, and heart function is assessed with an EKG.

Home Remedies for Panic and Anxiety Attacks

For dealing with stress and anxiety at home, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests these tips:

  • Find what’s causing stress and see if you can lessen it.
  • Try to drink less coffee and alcohol.
  • Focus on eating fruits, veggies, lean meats, and grains.
  • Aim for 8 hours of sleep a night.
  • Try activities like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises.
  • Spend time with friends or family who support you.

Professional Treatments for Panic and Anxiety

When someone has strong anxiety or sudden panic, doctors will look at their symptoms to decide the best treatment. It may be one of the following:

Therapy: Sessions with a therapist to learn coping skills.

CBT: A specific therapy to change thought and behavior patterns.

Medication: Includes SSRIs and SNRIs to balance brain chemicals, Pregabalin for persistent anxiety, and Benzodiazepines for quick, short-term relief.

Doctors warn that some anxiety medicines can be addictive or dangerous if mixed with other drugs or alcohol. Always use them as your doctor says.


While panic and anxiety attacks feel different, they both can be quite stressful. Getting the right help starts with a good talk with a doctor, who will ask questions, listen, and maybe run some tests to make sure nothing else is causing the problems. Therapy and medicines can help a lot. The sooner you reach out to a healthcare professional, the quicker you can start to feel better.

Leave a Reply