The terms “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” are often used interchangeably – notably due to the fact that their symptoms are so similar. However, aren’t meant to be used in such a manner. In fact, health professionals use these terms in order to differentiate between a panic attack vs anxiety attack.
But what are these differences? And do they play a major role in how to go about treatment?
Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deeper look at panic attack vs anxiety attack. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is defined by a sudden surge of intense anxiety or discomfort. This is accompanied by both mental and physical symptoms. ¹
Panic attacks tend to be episodic, lasting anywhere between minutes to hours.
What is an Anxiety Attack?
On the other hand, an anxiety attack isn’t a recognized diagnosis. Instead, it’s a term used by some to define an anxiety disorder.
Therefore, the feelings you get when experiencing an “anxiety attack” are simply symptoms of the type of anxiety you struggle with.
Still, anxiety attacks are just as disruptive as panic attacks. And they can become habitual – usually wired to a trigger. For example, if you have a social anxiety disorder, you’ll likely only feel anxiety attacks when in a social setting.
Clinical Differences in Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack
To differentiate between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, medical professionals will look at the intensity of symptoms as well as the duration of symptoms.
In simple terms, you’ll be diagnosed with a panic attack if symptoms are intense but short-lived. You’ll be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder if symptoms are mild to moderate but long-lasting.
To further differentiate the two, here are other factors medical professionals look out for:
|Panic Attack||Anxiety Disorder|
|Sudden and immediate symptoms||Slowly builds up|
|Last from minutes to hours||Lasts for months to years|
|Hot flashes||Muscle tension|
|Sense of detachment||Irritability|
Specifics Clinical Differences of a Panic Attack
Admittedly, panic attacks are a bit trickier to diagnose than an anxiety disorder.
In most cases, panic attacks are a direct symptom of a panic disorder. ² Furthermore, they may be caused by other psychiatric disorders. However, it is possible for someone to experience panic attacks with no disorder.
When a medical professional is seeking out panic attacks in an individual, they’re going to keep an eye out for the following 3 symptoms:
- Fear of losing control or dying
- Sense of detachment from self (depersonalization
- Sense of detachment from the world (derealization)
Specifics Clinical Differences of an Anxiety Attack
As mentioned, an “anxiety attack” is not something a mental health professional can diagnose. This is notably due to the fact that it’s not represented in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition). ³
Therefore, if a doctor believes you’re struggling with anxiety attacks, they’ll likely diagnose you with one of the following: ⁴
- An anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Stress-related disorder
In terms of panic attacks, these disorders differ in the sense that they don’t cause extreme fears and a sense of detachment. Instead, symptoms tend to include mild to moderate forms of anxiety and worry.
Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack: What’s the Difference?
In order to further differentiate these two conditions, we’re going to take a deeper look at each symptom set and how you may experience these symptoms:
Panic Attack Symptoms
Simply put, a panic attack is a sudden and intense fear, terror, or discomfort. These sensations will cause severe disruptions and result in the following symptoms:
- Abdominal distress
- Chest pain
- Depersonalization (detachment from oneself)
- Derealization (feelings of unreality)
- Dizziness (lightheadedness and fainting)
- Excessive sweating
- Fear of dying
- Feeling of choking
- Heart palpitations (or pounding heart)
- Hot flashes
- Loss of control
- Numbness (tingling sensations)
- Shortness of breath (difficulty breathing)
- Trembling or shaking
While panic attacks can sometimes be expected, they tend to appear out of the blue and are caused by an immediate trigger. When expected, it’s usually due to an already-known phobia (i.e. social anxiety disorder).
In most cases, a panic attack will peak within 10 minutes and then recede. However, you may experience longer durations of an attack or attacks that happen in succession.
Once an attack is over, you’ll likely feel stressed, worried, and on edge for the rest of the day.
Anxiety Attack Symptoms
On the other hand, an anxiety attack will slowly get worse over a period of time. Furthermore, it can usually be attached to an obvious trigger, such as stress or trauma. ⁵
When symptoms build up to a point where they feel overwhelming, you may experience what feels like an “attack.” However, the term “anxiety attack” isn’t used in a professional setting concerning these sensations.
The most common symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Disturbed sleep
- Easily startled
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle tension
Since anxiety symptoms are similar to those of a panic attack, the two can be confused one another. However, the best way to differentiate them is by intensity and duration of symptoms.
How to Treat Anxiety and Panic Attacks
When it comes to panic attacks and anxiety disorders, there are effective treatments for both. These usually include a combination of the following: ⁶
- Medication – To help in reducing symptoms while you work towards other methods of overcoming your disorder.
- Psychotherapy – To help you understand symptoms and develop ways to overcome them.
- Coping Techniques – Such as breathing exercises to help with symptom management at the moment it’s happening.
Some people have also found relief through over-the-counter medicines and holistic measures.
Now that you understand the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, you have a better chance of identifying which you struggle with. Subsequently, you also have the opportunity to find a treatment plan that directly attacks the disorder you struggle with.
When going about treatment options, it’s always important to receive a doctor’s recommendation.
Still have questions concerning what’s a panic attack vs anxiety attack?
We invite you to ask these in the comments section below. If you have any further advice to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms
² National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Panic Disorder
³ DSM Library: Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
⁴ U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): What are the five major types of anxiety disorders?
⁵ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Anxiety Disorders
⁶ Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience: Treatment of anxiety disorders