Panic attack vs. anxiety attack: How you can tell them apart

If you are experiencing a racing heartbeat, chest pain and a shortness of breath, you may think you’re experiencing an anxiety attack. Or could it be a panic attack? 

It’s not surprising that these two terms are frequently used. Over 10% of the American population experiences a panic attack each year. In addition, it’s estimated that more than 19% of U.S. adults had an anxiety disorder in the past year.

While anxiety and panic attacks share some common symptoms, they are actually different conditions.

What are anxiety attacks and panic attacks?

Clinically, the term anxiety attack isn’t one that’s recognized. For instance, it’s not mentioned in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” 5th edition (DSM-5-TR) used by mental health professionals. 

In fact, an anxiety attack is a nonmedical term that has developed among people who experience anxiety disorders. It can be defined as any period of time where you’re experiencing higher than normal anxiety or more anxiety symptoms than normal. However, we’ll move forward by referring to anxiety attacks as simply anxiety or increased anxiety.

Panic attacks are a completely different mental health condition that is a specific symptom of panic disorder. They are a clinical term that is used in the DSM-5-TR, and they have several similarities and differences when compared to anxiety.

How are anxiety and panic attacks similar?

There are several symptoms that increased anxiety and panic attacks have in common. Some of these symptoms include: 

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Discomfort or pain in the chest

How are anxiety and panic attacks different?

Increased anxiety is often related to a specific trigger, such as making a presentation at work. Panic attacks can be caused by a trigger, in which case they are called expected panic attacks. However, they can also happen without any obvious cause. When they do, they’re known as unexpected panic attacks. 

Panic attacks also tend to have much more sudden and severe symptoms than episodes of increased anxiety.

Some symptoms of a panic attack that are different from increased anxiety can include: 

  • Intense physical symptoms feeling similar to a heart attack
  • Sudden start and peaking quickly (typically lasting five to 10 minutes)
  • Fear of losing control or dying
  • Typically lasting less time than an anxiety attack
  • A feeling of detachment from yourself or your surroundings
  • Numbness or tingling in your extremities

Increased anxiety also has symptoms that are different from those of panic attacks. Some of these symptoms can include:

  • Overwhelming nervousness
  • Overwhelming sensation of irritability
  • A sense of impending danger
  • Typically lasting longer than a panic attack, or lasting for an indefinite span of time
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Trembling

What can cause panic attacks or increased anxiety to occur?

The exact cause of your panic attacks or increased anxiety may be unclear. In fact, you could have developed panic or anxiety disorders from a unique mixture of:

  • Family history — If there is a family history of anxiety, panic disorder or panic attacks, you have an increased risk of also developing the condition. You could have an up to 40% greater chance of developing a panic disorder if a close relative has the same condition.

  • Mental health conditions — If you have an anxiety disorder or depression, you can have an increased risk of experiencing a panic attack or episodes of increased anxiety.

  • Adverse childhood experience — If you experienced an adverse childhood experience, such as abuse or neglect, you may have an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders, panic disorder or panic attacks. 

Other triggers for anxiety and panic disorder can include:

  • Stressful situations such as a job, divorce, or death of a loved one
  • Social engagements
  • Phobias
  • Remembering traumatic experiences
  • Chronic conditions
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
  • Caffeine, medication or supplements
  • Thyroid issues
  • Family turmoil
  • Relationship difficulties

How can anxiety attacks and panic attacks be treated?

While they are different, both panic attacks and anxiety attacks can respond well to a variety of treatments. Your life doesn’t have to continuously be affected by panic attacks or anxiety. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you can find needed relief. 

Treatments that can be beneficial for panic attacks and anxiety include:

  • Process-based therapy (PBT) — At Lightfully, we use process-based therapy as our clinical model. PBT is a therapy approach that integrates a variety of evidence-based therapies, like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), to address the underlying drivers of mental health symptoms like those associated with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Common underlying drivers include emotion dysregulation and avoidance, shame and cognitive fusion, interpersonal disconnection and isolation, and meaningless and stagnation. Your PBT therapist will create a treatment plan unique to your needs that utilizes interventions to which you will respond best and addresses underlying drivers that are keeping you stuck.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — CBT can be effective for treating panic attacks and anxiety. Under the guidance of a licensed mental health professional, you can learn to discuss your thoughts and emotions, which will help you unlearn negative and anxious responses to those thoughts and emotions. Through CBT, you can learn healthier responses to triggers, behaviors or patterns.

  • Exposure therapy — With the help of your therapist or counselor, you can slowly and repeatedly expose yourself to your trigger or triggers. This can help you learn how to safely and comfortably respond in stressful situations instead of experiencing an anxiety or panic attack.

  • Medications — Medications can be used on their own or in conjunction with other treatments that can help your anxiety. Medications used to help treat anxiety include: antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and beta blockers.|

  • Relaxation techniques — Practicing relaxation techniques can help you in the midst of an increased anxiety episode or panic attack. Techniques can be taking a bath, breathing exercises or guided imagery.

  • Taking deep breaths — In the midst of a period of increased anxiety or panic attack, being mindful of your breathing and taking intentional slow and deep breaths can help you feel more grounded and relaxed. 

Your therapist or medical provider may recommend a variety of treatments to treat your situation the best. Having a plan in place can help you when you feel like you are losing control. While panic attacks and anxiety are two different conditions, you can get help if either one is negatively affecting your quality of life. 

Anxiety or panic attacks don’t have to control your life. Let Lightfully help 

Lightfully Behavioral Health can help you work through your struggles with the effects anxiety or panic attacks have on your life. Our licensed clinical therapists see more than your struggle with attacks; they see the whole complex human that you are. Your emotions and feelings are valid and part of your human experience. We want to help you learn healthy coping skills to help you lessen the effect anxiety or panic attacks are having on your life. 

Our Lightfully mission is to compassionately help people and change their lives. We strive to provide our clients with premier care. We offer a variety of services to meet the needs of our clients. Our therapists have extensive training and education in research-backed therapy approaches to assist you in coping with panic attacks or anxiety attacks. 

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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