While some health experts claim that there is no such thing as anxiety attacks, one can’t erase the fact that it does exist, and it is not unusual to see the terms- panic attack and anxiety attack being used interchangeably.

The fact, however, remains that even though panic attack and anxiety attack do share common symptoms; there are still crucial characteristics that distinguish one from the other.

You can only distinguish between the two if you know the differences.

Anxiety attacks can be said to occur when one has unrealistic and excessive worry over a stretched period, go hand to hand with depression, and it can last for up to 6 months. In comparison, a panic attack appears to be much more severe even though it continues for only a short while.

A panic attack feels different from the feeling you get when you are being excessively worried about life issues. In fact, people that suffer or have suffered from panic attacks usually do not have a specific term to describe it, but one sure thing that can be deduced from their experiences is that panic attacks can be terrifying and physically debilitating.

What is an anxiety attack? What is a panic attack? Let’s explore and take it a step at a time.

Anxiety Attack and Symptoms

The term ‘anxiety attack’ does not exist in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), yet people have reportedly experienced it. In fact, according to Dr. Helen Odessky, a Chicago therapist, research shows that 18% of people in the US have been reported to have significant anxiety issues.

The fact that it is not in the DSM; however, leaves it as more of a colloquial term than a clinical term. People use the term to describe an extended and intense period of worry and anxiety.

Deducing from those that suffer from it, an anxiety attack is more intense than the mere feeling of anxiety but less severe than a panic attack at a given episode.

Many patients must have used this term in therapy sessions that physicians, therapists and mental health professionals have started to take due note of it even though it is not yet official.

Anxiety Attack Symptoms in Women

  • Restlessness and an edgy feeling
  • Easily irritated
  • Easily prone to fatigue
  • Lack of concentration
  • distress
  • Excessive worrying and inability to control worries
  • Sleep disorders (difficulty falling or staying asleep)
  • Tensed muscles
  • Personality changes, for example, withdrawal from social activities

Anxiety attacks could present with one or more of the symptoms mentioned above. Since anxiety is the body’s normal way of responding to a stimulus or certain situation, anxiety attack could be said to be a more intense way of showing that emotion.

Remember, stress and anxiety can be a part of a bigger problem, the depression or major depressive disorder. Therefore, you should not take regular anxiety attacks lightly but should seek medical advice.

Panic Attack and Symptoms

Panic disorder is a term used to describe a series of recurrent panic attacks and was officially recognized as a distinct psychiatric disorder about 30 years ago.

Panic attacks usually come as unexpected intense fear in which about 4 out of about 13 symptoms that characterizes panic attacks develop rapidly and gets to its peak within 10 minutes of its onset.

It is easier to define a panic attack since it is a clinical term and has an official definition in the DSM.

According to the DSM, “A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe and serious physical reactions when there isn’t a real danger or apparent cause for it.”

Panic Attack Symptoms in Women

  • Fast and pounding heart rate
  • Sensing an impending doom or danger
  • Phobia for death or loss of control
  • Shaking and trembling
  • Chills
  • Sweating
  • Sense of choking
  • Hot flashes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • An unrealistic feeling
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Chest pain
  • Headache and dizziness
  • Numbness and a tingling sensation

Panic attacks usually present with at least four of the symptoms as mentioned above at a time and would last for a short period, say 10-15 minutes.

Sometimes a panic attack could give the sensation of a heartache making its sufferers feel they are under serious and immediate threat.

Differences Between Symptoms of Panic and Anxiety Attacks

Here are some points to note down about panic attack and anxiety attack symptoms.

1. A panic attack usually lasts for a short period while anxiety tends to extend over a more extended period

Once health professionals used to say that the panic attack is acute while anxiety is chronic.

Being acute, however, doesn’t mean it is a walk in the park. For that brief period, it gets a hold of its victim, and it comes with much intense fear, breathlessness, rapid beating of the heart and distress. When this occurs repeatedly, it could then be diagnosed as ‘panic disorder’.

Anxiety attack, on the other hand, is not usually short-lived. It is like that nagging feeling with low and mild symptoms you get that persist over a long period. Worry is a common symptom here, and it is constant, it might be diagnosed as ‘generalized anxiety disorder’ (GAD) or a symptom of Depression.

GAD is excessive anxiety and worry that lasts for more than 6 months.

People with GAD worry a lot. They worry about why their husbands have not called yet, they worry when their kids leave the house, and they worry about just anything even when they are not meant to.

2. Panic attack and anxiety attack usually have different underlying emotions triggering them

It is normal to feel anxious or nervous sometimes, but there are times people let their emotions get the better part of them. At other times, they worry over things that haven’t even occurred yet. That is a sign of anxiety.

With a panic attack, on the other hand, the body responds to an impending danger even if it does not pose a threat to the physical well-being of the person.

A panic attack can be described as extreme fear.

Other social and medical factors that could trigger a panic attack are the ones listed below.

  • social phobia (and other phobias)
  • stressful job
  • heart attacks
  • memories of past traumatic experiences
  • chronic pain
  • caffeine
  • drug or alcohol withdrawal
  • hypoglycemia (low level of sugar in the blood)
  • hyperthyroidism (abnormally high level of thyroid hormone)
  • And even mitral valve prolapse.

3. Anxiety reduces physiological activity while a panic attack increases it

Just as it is with fight and flight response, during a panic attack, breathing and heart rate increases. The body releases hormones called epinephrine in readiness to fight off any potential enemy.

However, the case seems to be the reverse with people suffering from GAD as studies show that physiological activities are reduced with excessive worry.

Summary of the Differences Between Anxiety and Panic Attack

It is essential to distinguish between anxiety and panic attacks for better management. Lack of understanding of these terms could make you treat a disorder you don’t actually have.

With its knowledge, you get the appropriate treatment and would also find it easier to develop useful and better-coping skills.

  Symptom severity Duration Onset Clinical disorder?
Anxiety attack Mild and low Spans from short to long Gradual Not certain, but likely if attacks are regular
Panic attack Intense Usually short Abrupt Yes, if attacks are regular
 

 

Risk Factors for Panic and Anxiety Attacks

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks seem to share similar risk factors.

People that have family members with anxiety or panic disorders are prone to having panic attacks. Also, there tends to be a link that people with anxious personalities are likely to experience panic attacks.

Other risk factors for (panic) attacks include:

  • Drug abuse
  • Stress with personal and work-life
  • Other mental issues like depression
  • Past traumatic experience or witness to a traumatic event
  • Chronic medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes

Research confirms that females are more likely to suffer from panic attacks and anxiety attacks than their male counterparts are.

Do Doctors Diagnose Anxiety Attacks?

Because anxiety attack is not defined clinically, your doctor may not really be able to diagnose it (diagnosed by mental health professionals are based on definitions as found in the DSM) or use the term ‘anxiety attack’.

However, the following associated terms can be diagnosed:

  • Anxiety symptoms
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Panic disorders
  • Depression

However, the good news is, with the symptom present in an anxiety attack, it can be treated.

How To Stop Panic and Anxiety Attacks and Treatment Options?

Treatment option for the two could vary as their symptoms are not the same, but one sure thing is whether you are suffering from anxiety or panic attack, there are effective treatment options available for you.

The commonly used treatment options include:

  • Medications like anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs and benzodiazepines can help reduce particularly the most severe symptoms
  • Therapy, which can help in dealing with the past and development of management techniques.
  • Self-help strategies could help you work your way through your management techniques at a pace that works for you. For example, breathing, meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Sometimes depending on the severity of the attacks, it might be necessary to combine two or more of these treatment options for a more effective outcome.

Not to forget, that some exercises we mentioned in the article Best Exercise For Diabetes can help you with anxiety and panic attacks too. Some of the other Diabetes Home Remedies can be useful too.

Do Children Experience Panic and Anxiety Attack?

While it is quite common for children to have phobias about certain things like dogs, clowns, insects, storms and the dark, it is not so common for them to be diagnosed with a panic disorder.

Panic attacks usually come with a sudden feeling of extreme fear accompanied by other physical symptoms like pounding heart, breathlessness and tingling sensation.

With children, they might get the feeling that they are dying or something really terrible is going to happen to them. However, episodes like these are not so frequent in teenagers and are even rarer in younger children.

When children exhibit anxiety behaviors, which is common amongst them, they could exhibit the following physical, emotional and behavioral signs:

  • Complaints of headache and stomach aches, without ‘true’ pain.
  • Shaking and sweating, especially when they feel intimidated
  • Sleeping problems
  • Muscle tension
  • Excessive crying
  • Easily irritated
  • Fear of making even minor mistakes
  • Worry and fear when dropped off at school, day care, relative’s home etc
  • Has frequent nightmares
  • Remain silent or withdrawn when expected to work with others
  • Refuses to do things without reasons
  • Refuses to go to school
  • Has regular meltdowns and throws tantrums

If a child exhibit symptoms of a panic attack or anxiety attack, it would be wise and necessary to seek professional help.

There are a number of places to start from such as:

  • The child’s school counsellor or psychologist
  • The child’s paediatric
  • Psychiatrist specialised in children
  • The community health centre
  • A specialist anxiety hospital or clinic

In Conclusion

Even though panic attacks and anxiety attacks are used interchangeably, they are not the same. They share some similar symptoms, but they are quite different.

While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, clearly defines a panic attack, it doesn’t recognise the anxiety attack.

Although panic attacks are much more severe and intense than anxiety attacks, both can be distressing and disrupt normal life activities. It is also possible to experience both panic attacks and anxiety attacks at the same time. For instance, worry can lead to anxiety, which can, in turn, culminate in a panic attack.

There is always a need to seek medical help in either case.

Did you know that anxiety could lead to back pain? Follow the link to read about the natural remedies for back pain.

8 Comments

  1. Harry

    Anxiety and panic attacks are definitely not the same… I have been experiencing high levels of anxiety throughout my entire life but I have only had just a few panic attacks here and there, usually a lot of years apart.

    A panic attack is so intense and uncontrollable… Sometimes once a panic attack starts then you get panicked because of the panic attack and then the symptoms intensify. It’s like a vicious circle.

    Anxiety is more controllable and you can even regulate it with some mindful breathing.

    Reply
  2. Gaurav Gaur

    Hi Shani,
    Thanks for bringing out the clear difference between an anxiety attack and panic attack as we assumed both as same or could not identify them separately at all. You have beautifully explained the difference through the table – which made it too easy.
    I never knew that even children may have these issues. The symptoms you shared seems normal to the growing child, I will definitely have a close watch from now on, as it needs to be checked at the initial stage itself.
    Warm Regards,
    Gaurav Gaur

    Reply
  3. Mike

    Your article is very informative and has a lot of information. It is very well written. I learned a lot about both types of attacks even though one isn’t “official”. 

    I know personally, that anxiety issues can hurt for a long time, and sometimes the cause is unexplainable. You feel like there is something in the back or your head telling you something isn’t right, even when there is nothing wrong. 

    Overall this is an excellent article.

    -Mike

    Reply
  4. gr8megawinner

    Anxiety Attack and Panic Attack, you have put the dividing line as you enumerated that panic attack is a short episode and intense while anxiety attack is slow and gradual and not as intense as a panic attack but all the same both could have a high debilitating effect. A panic attack is a dangerous episode because it could lead to a more medical disorder. 

    I believe the causes are part of modern life. Specifically, the so-called stresses happening in the workplace and the daily grind of going to and from different activities always coping with skeds and commitment. Not to mention the menacing nature of some evil individuals who inflict abuses and harassment. The lack of a strong support system coming from family or friends. But today relations are characterized by lack of rapport, weak concerns neglect and more on work rather than concerns on the well being of loved ones. It is a painful experience for people who do not have daily support who could be there and calm the nerves and the mind. It is the curse of today’s modern living. It is more pronounced in urban areas rather than with people surrounded by family and friends. 

    I am enlightened even more on the difference of the two and the symptoms are rather pointed and clear as I saw it to my own experience.

    Reply
    • MediChannel

      Thanks for adding such valuable insight.

      You are correct; both panic attacks and anxiety attacks can lead to severe forms of medical disorders.

      We can not agree more about your explanation of the contributing factors to panic and anxiety attacks. You have nailed it.

      If you need any specific questions requiring answers, please don’t forget that we are a Click Away.

      Best wishes.

      Reply
  5. Emmanuel Buysse

    Great article and it is true. My wife has anxiety, it is nothing to compare with a panic attack. She always has it when it’s about hospitals, or when she feels bad. You’ve explained the things very good, lets hope that more people will understand the différents about these 2 now. 

    Thanks for sharing it. 

    Reply
  6. Mason

    Dear Shani, 

    I had no idea that panic attacks and anxiety attacks were so different. I’m sure I was just like most people and though they were the same. Thank you for helping to clear that up in such an easy to understand way. 

    I do wonder though, do you think genetics have anything to do with having anxiety attacks? Can it be an inherited trait or is more developmental? 

    I read a book about Steve Young and he talked a lot about his struggle with anxiety and it really got me thinking if there was some contributing factor that “made” him that way or if he was just born that way. 

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Shani

      Dear Mason,

      Thanks for the stopping by and you raised an important question.

      Science has some strong evidence to suggest that Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD has a moderate hereditary risk. As I noted in the article, regular anxiety attacks can be an early stage of a bigger problem – Major Depression Discorder or MDD, which is also believed to have a genetical association. Other risk factors for anxiety attacks and anxiety disorder include; thyroid disorders, traumatic life events and phobias.

      Although some doctors believe a possibility of a genetical involvement in Panic Attacks (Panic Disorder), the scientific evidence is inconclusive and research is still underway. However, evidence exists to suggest that Panic Attacks are common among women than in men. They are also higher in Caucasians compared to the African American, Asians and Latinos.

      Anxiety is a common problem. I believe it is one of those diseases underdiagnosed as people tend to ignore the symptoms until it progressors to Major Depressive Disorder.

      Hope this helps.

      Reply

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