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Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Feb 14, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Sometimes panic attacks and anxiety attacks can be used interchangeably, although they present differently from each other and often feel different, although both involve intense emotions.

Anxiety Attack Panic Attack
Cause in response to a recognized threat may not have an identifiable trigger
Symptoms mild: dizziness, feeling overwhelmed, nausea, fatigue intense: feeling of dread, sweating, rapid heartbeat, sense of unreality or detachment
Duration a day to months minutes
Onset gradual sudden

The main difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks is that anxiety can often relate to a specific event or situation, whereas panic is able to happen without a specific trigger.

There are some shared traits of anxiety and panic attacks, and both come with physical and emotional symptoms. Some of these shared traits are shortness of breath, fear, light-headedness, and irrational thoughts.

Anxiety attacks are less severe than panic attacks but can be persistent, sometimes lasting for days, weeks, or even months. Anxiety attacks can range from mild, moderate, or severe but usually will not severely impair day to day activities in the same way that panic attacks do.

Anxiety attacks usually intensify over time but can settle down once the fearful experience or situation is gone. The symptoms of panic attacks are often far more severe than those experienced in anxiety attacks. Also, panic attacks are a diagnosable condition whereas anxiety attacks are currently not.

Panic Attacks

What do they feel like? 

Panic attacks come on suddenly and involve significantly intense and often overwhelming fear and discomfort. Panic attacks are often accompanied by physical symptoms such as racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea.

Another common feeling is an impending sense of doom, dread, terror, and worry that something terrible is going to happen.

You begin sweating and trembling, your heart starts pounding (and feels like it will break out of your chest), you have trouble breathing, and you start to feel extremely dizzy, fearful, and nauseous. You may always feel like you are going to die, or are having a heart attack.

Panic attacks can be so intense that the individual cannot function normally whilst experiencing one.

It is not uncommon that following a panic attack, people may feel stressed, worried, or on edge for the rest of the day. In the moment, the panic attack is so severe that it disrupts day to day functioning.

How long do they last? 

A panic attack can start suddenly, symptoms tend to reach their peak after about 10 minutes. After around 30 minutes, the symptoms tend to settle, although the effects may last longer. Usually, panic attacks can last between a few minutes and an hour.

What causes them?

Panic attacks can occur either expectantly or unexpectantly. Expectant panic attacks are usually triggered by an external stressor, oftentimes phobias. Unexpected panic attacks could occur without any obvious cause, sometimes happening when previously feeling calm.

Panic attacks can happen to anyone, but having more than one occurrence could be a sign of panic disorder.

Whilst the causes of panic attacks are not always known, there are some possible factors such as brain chemistry, genetics, and personality which may play a role in someone being more likely to develop panic attacks.

For instance, people who are more sensitive to stress or frequently experience negative emotions may be more susceptible to panic or anxiety.

Similarly, those who have more of an anxious or neurotic type personality may be more likely to expect panic or anxiety attacks. Another factor is if a family member such as a parent or sibling have an anxiety disorder.

What are some possible triggers for anxiety attacks?

Although unexpected panic attacks do not seem to be caused by anything in particular, expected panic attacks can be triggered by similar situations. Below are a list of possible triggers for these types of attacks, although it is worth noting some of the triggers may be specific to a type of anxiety condition:

  • Stressful job

  • Social situations

  • Exposure to a phobia

  • Reminders of traumatic experiences or memories

  • Chronic illness

  • Chronic pain

  • Drug or alcohol withdrawal

  • Over consumption of caffeine

  • Medications

  • Financial pressure

  • Relationship problems

  • Changing life situations such as moving house or getting a new job

Can panic attacks occur any time of day? 

Panic attacks can occur very suddenly without any noticeable cause. Because of this, they can occur at any time of the day, including when at work or school, when driving a car, or even in the middle of the night when fast asleep.

Can panic attacks cause physical pain?

Panic attacks can feel very severe and have multiple physical symptoms such as feeling lightheaded, difficulty breathing, and sometimes chest pain.

This can feel painful or sharp for some people that they may believe they are experiencing a heart attack, with some people genuinely believing they are going to die.

Anxiety Attacks

What do they feel like? 

Anxiety attacks, unlike panic attacks, are not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). However, they are usually experienced as a symptom of other conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder.

What causes them?

Anxiety is usually related to the anticipation of a stressor, event or experience, significantly the feeling that something bad is going to happen.

Anxiety attacks usually present as strong feelings of worry, fear or distress that may build up gradually. This can also develop into some physical symptoms such as being restless, irritable, or fast heartbeat.

What are some possible triggers for anxiety attacks?

Triggers for anxiety attacks can depend on the types of anxieties the person has. Someone with a fear of social situations may experience anxiety attacks when having to do a presentation in front of their class, or when attending parties with lots of people.

Those who are worried or fearful about enclosed spaces may experience an anxiety attack when in an elevator.

Certain anxiety conditions can be a cause of anxiety attacks, each of which have their own specific causes and associated symptoms:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder – the presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, and situations.

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder – a condition marked by unwanted repeated thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that interfere with daily life. 

  • Social anxiety disorder – a condition associated with the irrational fear and anxiety of being watched, judged, or of embarrassing oneself. 

  • Specific phobias – this features the irrational fear of an object, place, or situation, e.g. fear of spiders (arachnophobia), or open spaces (agoraphobia). 

  • Separation anxiety disorder – the excessive fear of being separated from the primary caregiver. 

How long do they last? 

As anxiety attacks are often related to a specific event or situation, the symptoms can build up and continue for some time.

Anxiety does not tend to peak in the same way that panic does, and a person is more likely to stay consistently anxious until the fearful situation is over or until symptoms fade away on their own.

Can anxiety lead to panic?

Some people with anxiety may progress to panic attacks. If a person who has panic disorder suspects a panic attack may happen, they could experience a rush of anxiety in anticipation of a panic attack.

This can result in all the same symptoms of anxiety attacks which may in turn trigger the panic attacks itself.

When should you seek treatment or support?

It’s worth looking for help if panic attacks or anxiety attacks are having an impact on your ability to function normally (e.g. do your job, everyday activities).

If you have started to avoid certain places or situations that this is also a sign to seek help – socializing with certain people, or avoiding places where you have previously had an anxiety attack.

In the short-term, avoiding anxious or fearful situations can make a person feel safe, but this is a problem in the long-term as avoidance can keep people anxious.

anxiety avoidance graph

Diagnosis

In order to diagnose panic disorder or an anxiety disorder, a discussion with a doctor is usually the first step to evaluate symptoms.

During this evaluation, the doctor will usually take the individual’s medical history, complete a physical exam, and may undertake other tests to rule out any medical illness that may be contributing to the symptoms. 

Questions may be asked about the symptoms being experienced, including the intensity of them, durations, and the impact they may be having on the individual’s normal daily functioning. This will help aid a diagnosis, usually based around the criteria found in the DSM-IV.

The DSM-IV classifies panic attacks into two clear categories: expected and unexpected. Whilst expected panic attacks are associated with a specific fear, unexpected panic attacks have no apparent trigger.

According to the DSM-IV criteria, a panic attack is characterized by four or more of the symptoms that were listed above under ‘Symptoms’, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, fear of losing control, and fear of dying. 

panic attack symptoms

For a diagnosis to be made, the panic attacks must be recurrent, a significant maladaptive change in behavior related to the attacks and cannot be explained by other means such as through substance misuse or another mental health condition. 

For anxiety attacks, it is also recommended to have the same evaluations from a doctor. If the symptoms cannot be explained by a medical condition, a referral to a mental health professional can be made for further evaluation.

Since anxiety attacks are not a formal diagnosis within the DSM-IV, instead individuals experiencing these attacks may be diagnosed with a type of anxiety condition such as generalized anxiety or social anxiety disorder, depending on the types of symptoms. 

Treatment and management 

Depending on the intensity and the possible known causes of the panic or anxiety attacks can determine which treatments works best.

People may find that some techniques work better for them than others, whilst some may try a combination of treatments to improve well-being.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapies are beneficial to better understand symptoms and develop methods of managing them. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular psychotherapy recommended for those with panic or other anxiety disorders.

CBT helps individuals to identify their thoughts that contribute to fear or anxiety and learn to challenge these thoughts, replacing them with realistic and helpful ones.

Exposure therapy is another type of psychotherapy which is mostly recommended for those with specific phobias. This therapy involves gradually exposing the individual to the feared object or situation whilst practicing relaxation techniques.

Over time, the source of the fear should become less frightening for the individual and there should be fewer anxiety attacks as a result.

Medication

The primary reason for taking medication is to help in reducing symptoms. Medication may only be required for a short period of time to control the symptoms whilst utilizing other strategies. 

Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders as they act on the neurotransmitter serotonin – a chemical associated with mood and feelings of happiness. Examples of SSRIs are Zoloft (Sertraline) and Lexapro (Escitalopram). 

Anti-anxiety medications may also be prescribed, including benzodiazepines. These medications act as depressants on the central nervous system (CNS) and can work quicker and stronger than antidepressants. Examples of anti-anxiety medications are Xanax (Alprazolam) and Valium (Diazepam).

Lifestyle 

As well as medication and psychotherapy, there are many lifestyle changes that can be made to help manage panic and anxiety attacks. Firstly, it is helpful to understand the signs and triggers of what is causing the panic or anxiety (However, this cannot always be the case for unexpected types of panic attacks).

If the source of the triggers are identified, it could be possible to reduce and manage this source. For instance, if overworking at a job is the cause of attacks, adjustments could be made with the employer to ensure the individual is not over-exerting themselves, or the individual can decline to work an extra load if they are significantly affected. 

It may also be useful to have a good support network who can help the individual talk through their struggles. Confiding in close friends or family members could offload some of the anxiety the person is feeling. Likewise, joining support groups for panic or anxiety can help individuals feel less isolated and learn helpful tips to manage their attacks.

Relaxation exercizes have also found to be beneficial for those with panic and anxiety disorders. This can include trying out yoga, meditating, mindfulness and deep breathing.

During or immediately after a panic or anxiety attack, it may be useful to complete relaxation exercizes to help manage or recover from the intense feelings quicker.

A technique known as progressive muscle relaxation is a method whereby individuals purposely tense a muscle and then release it after a few seconds. A person could start tensing and relaxing their feet, working their way up their body through their legs, arms, and face, until their whole body feels more relaxed and focused.

Also, visualization is another technique which can be used during an attack where individuals imagine they are in an environment that is relaxing for them, with the aim of calming their anxious or panicked symptoms. 

Finally, other lifestyle techniques such as diet and exercize have proven to be useful for managing feelings of anxiety and improving mental health in general. Getting adequate sleep and limiting alcohol, drugs and caffeine intake can also be beneficial for those experiencing panic and anxiety attacks.

Do you need mental health help?

USA

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

1-800-273-8255

UK

Contact the Samaritans for support and assistance from a trained counselor: https://www.samaritans.org/; email [email protected].

Availiale 24 hours day, 365 days a year (this number is FREE to call):

116-123

Rethink Mental Illness: rethink.org

0300 5000 927

Fact Checking
Simply Psychology content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

How to reference this article:

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Feb 14). Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/the-difference-between-panic-attacks-and-anxiety-attacks.html

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th edition. American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

Cleveland Clinic. Anxiety disorders: Diagnosis and tests.

National Institutes of Mental Health. Panic disorder: When fear overwhelms.

National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders.

Gregory KD, Chelmow D, Nelson HD, et al. Screening for anxiety in adolescent and adult women: A recommendation from the Women's Preventive Services Initiative. Ann Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.7326/M20-0580

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