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Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack: How to Spot the Difference

woman stressed out with a blanket over her knees and her grabbing her head

It’s happening again; your heart pounds against your chest, you feel like you are struggling to breathe, your thoughts are racing out of control and taking your feelings with them. But what is really going on? Is this your familiar friend, the anxiety attack, or could it be something different? Read on as we examine the subtle, but significant, differences between anxiety attacks and panic attacks, where they come from, and how to treat them.

Anxiety Attack vs Panic Attack: Causes and Triggers

Experiencing anxiety attacks and panic attacks can feel overwhelming and isolating, especially when you don’t understand what is causing these debilitating symptoms. Thankfully, public awareness of anxiety has been increasing, and so is our understanding of where it comes from and how to treat it. However, it also seems like anxiety is being felt more frequently than ever. While everyone seems to understand what it feels like to have an anxious moment or even an anxiety attack, the difference between the causes of the two is still not well known. Even doctors find that there is significant overlap in how these two types of attacks are caused and how they are differentiated. Although doctors cannot diagnose general anxiety attacks, they are able to offer the following diagnoses:

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

But what causes a panic attack? To answer that question, you must first understand that there are two types of panic attacks: unexpected and expected. An unexpected panic attack seems to have no clear link to external triggers. They come on suddenly and unexpectedly, with seemingly no reason. An expected panic attack—although, granted, people never truly expect a panic attack—can be linked to similar triggers as anxiety. However, naming the exact cause of a panic attack or an anxiety attack can be difficult. This is because everyone has a different sensitivity or level of tolerance to different emotional and physical stimuli. Yet, what medical professionals do know is that they are most likely to be triggered by several types of severe stressors.

Sad or scared woman having a panic attack and grabbing her head
An unexpected panic attack seems to have no clear link to external triggers (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Common Stress Triggers

Interestingly, both anxiety attacks and panic attacks seem to be triggered by similar, if not the same, stressors and influences. Some of the most common triggers include:

  • Substance use and/or abuse
  • A stressful job
  • Driving
  • Reminders of trauma
  • Job loss
  • Phobias
  • Chronic illness
  • Stressful social environments
  • Loss and grief
  • Caffeine
  • Chronic illnesses

As you can see, expected panic attacks and symptoms of anxiety attacks can be very closely related. So how do you tell the difference? Keep reading to find out.

Anxiety vs Panic: How to Tell the Difference

The symptoms of an anxiety attack and the symptoms of a panic attack may feel similar both physically and psychologically, but they escalate into different types of attacks. Also, did you know that you can experience an anxiety attack at the same time as a panic attack? For example, if you anticipate a stressful situation such as a job loss or a funeral, the fears surrounding the situation may stimulate anxiety. This anxiety provokes an anxiety attack that then escalates into a panic attack. However, keep in mind that panic attacks most often occur unexpectedly and seemingly unprovoked. This is a key difference between anxiety attacks and panic attacks. Having one panic attack is fairly common and can happen to anyone, but having more than one may be taken as a symptom of a panic disorder.

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Here are the key differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack.

Triggers and Speed

The most telling difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack is that panic attacks come on suddenly without warning. Unlike anxiety attacks, panic attacks can happen with triggers or without. Most often, though, panic attacks happen quickly and without any provocation. While there can be several variations of panic attacks, the symptoms usually peak within a few minutes and can leave you feeling exhausted both mentally and physically.

Fight-or-Flight

During a panic attack, the body’s instinctual fear and trauma responses are the driving factors in your response and behavior. Those around you may find it difficult to calm you down or persuade you away from your natural fight-or-flight response.

Intensity

Panic attack symptoms affect many aspects, including the mental, emotional, and physical self. The intensity of these symptoms is greater than that of a panic attack. Here are some symptoms of a panic attack:

  • Feeling like you are going to die
  • Intense fear or discomfort
  • Worry
  • Racing thoughts
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Hot flashes
  • Chills
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feelings of choking
  • Nausea and stomach pain
  • Fear of imminent danger
  • Fear of losing control

Lasting Effects

Because the symptoms and consequences are so intense, a panic attack can leave a lasting effect on a person out of fear of another panic attack occurring. If you’ve had a panic attack, you may be so wary and fearful of another one surprising you that you may modify your life and behaviors to avoid a recurrence.

How to Treat and Soothe Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Now that you have a better understanding of anxiety, panic attacks, and their causes, you may now be asking, “But what can I do about it?” Luckily, the answer is, a lot! There are plenty of at-home exercises and strategies you can use to soothe an anxiety or panic attack. However, if the symptoms and frequency of your attacks are severe, there are several professional options to help, as well.

At-Home Relief

Man breathing deeply fresh air in a park
You are not alone in experiencing anxiety or panic attacks (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Reducing anxiety and the likelihood of panic attacks can be significantly reduced by several lifestyle changes. Some of these lifestyle changes include:

Professional Help

If you find that your symptoms are intense and unable to be soothed independently or your anxiety or panic attacks happen frequently, I urge you to seek out professional assistance. You may also seek help to understand if you are experiencing anxiety attacks or an anxiety disorder, panic attacks, or panic disorder. There are many options ranging from in-person or online therapy to medication that can help alleviate your anxiety or panic attacks and give you your life back.

Final Thoughts

Although society may never be able to completely eradicate anxiety or panic attacks, doctors and medical professionals have tools to understand and treat these debilitating attacks. By understanding the difference between anxiety symptoms and panic attacks, the causes, and how you can soothe them, you should be able to reduce the likelihood of attacks. You can also make a plan to soothe yourself when they do hit. Don’t forget, there are always professionals who want to help you if and when you decide you need it. You should always reach out to a mental health expert if you are feeling out of control or unable to soothe your symptoms at home. You are not alone in experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, and you are not alone in treating them.