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Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack: Recognizing the Difference

writtenByWritten by: Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse
Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa is a MSN prepared Registered Nurse with 10 years of critical care experience in healthcare. When not practicing clinical nursing, she enjoys academic writing and is passionate about helping those affected by medical aliments live healthy lives.

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January 12, 2021 Read Time - 7 minutes

How to Differentiate Between a Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines anxiety as excessive worry occurring more days than not, for at least 6 months. However, the DSM-5 does not recognize “anxiety attacks” as a condition. For the purposes of this article, the term “anxiety attack” will be used to refer to overwhelming symptoms and feelings of anxiety.

Panic disorder means having unexpected, recurring panic attacks. A panic attack means the abrupt onset of intense fear that peaks within minutes and has at least four physical and psychological symptoms based on DSM-5 criteria

While an anxiety attack is often triggered by a specific event or experience, a panic attack can occur without being prompted by a particular cause. A panic attack typically happens unexpectedly, and tends to be more intense than an anxiety attack.

While panic attacks are sometimes referred to as anxiety attacks, anxiety attacks are considered milder forms of panic attacks. 

Read on to find out the differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack, as well as their causes and treatments.

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What is an “Anxiety Attack”?

The DSM-5 does not recognize anxiety attacks as a condition. The DSM-5 characterizes anxiety as taking the form of excessive worry that occurs most days for a period of time of at least 6 months.

An anxiety attack is defined as an excessive worry about a situation, experience, or event that subsequently disrupts your daily life. Anxiety attacks can occur at any time.

Anxiety attacks are common. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder. 

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden period of fear that happens without an apparent cause or trigger. It can include physical symptoms as well as feelings of detachment.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), panic disorder includes the experience of recurrent panic attacks. This includes one or more attacks, followed by at least one month of fear of another panic attack or significant maladaptive behavior related to the attacks.

Panic attacks are more intense than anxiety attacks, and can be described as unbearable to the sufferer.

How to Tell If You Are Having a Panic Attack or an Anxiety Attack?

The important difference between anxiety attacks and panic attacks is that anxiety attacks are typically related to something that is perceived as stressful or threatening, while panic attacks can occur unprompted by anything.

You can often determine triggers for anxiety attacks, yet a panic attack may occur randomly or unprompted by anything. Anxiety attacks are also milder than panic attacks.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Physical symptoms during a panic attack are often felt as more intense in comparison to anxiety attacks. Other symptoms of a panic attack that do not occur with anxiety attacks include:

  • Fear of dying or losing control
  • Derealization (a sense of detachment from the world)
  • Depersonalization (a sense of detachment from oneself)

Panic attacks can have no clear external triggers, which is another main difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks.

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

Anxiety attacks often have external triggers including but not limited to:

  • Health issues
  • Medications
  • Caffeine
  • Skipping meals (low blood sugar)
  • Negative thoughts
  • Financial concerns
  • Parties or social events
  • Relationship conflict
  • Daily stress (traffic, work, school, etc.)

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack Symptoms

Anxiety and panic attacks are made up of emotional and physical symptoms. They share similarities, but there are a few key differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack. Anxiety attacks can often progress into panic attacks. Residual physical and emotion effects are felt after both types of attacks.

SymptomAnxiety AttackPanic Attack
Apprehension or worry
Distress
Restlessness
Fear
Fear of dying or losing control
Derealization (a sense of detachment from the world)
Depersonalization (a sense of detachment from oneself)
Heart palpitations or an accelerated heart rate
Shortness of breath
Tightness in the throat or like you are choking
Dry mouth
Sweating
Chills or hot flashes
Trembling or shaking
Numbness or tingling (paresthesia)
Nausea, abdominal pain, or upset stomach
Headache
Feeling faint or dizzy

Causes of Anxiety and Panic Attacks

It is not clear what precisely causes anxiety attacks, but scientist believe that attacks have genetic components as well as developmental or environmental factors.

Some people are more prone to anxiety disorders due to genetics. If your first-degree relative has an anxiety disorder, then you are more likely to have an anxiety disorder. Because of this, it is thought that people may have biological vulnerabilities to anxiety attacks.

Another factor that causes anxiety and panic attacks are traumatic events that have occurred in childhood. Traumatic factors include:

  • Mental, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Emotional or physical neglect
  • Parent who is an alcoholic
  • Mother who is a victim of domestic violence
  • Family member in jail
  • Family member diagnosed with mental illness
  • Divorce
  • Death or abandonment

If you have experienced any of these undesirable events before the age of 18, you are more likely to develop anxiety disorders.

How Long Do Panic and Anxiety Attacks Last?

Most panic attacks last between 5 and 30 minutes, with the average peak time around 10 minutes.

Attacks rarely last more than 30 minutes, but some people may experience cyclical attacks, which can come and go for an hour or more. The number of attacks depends on the severity of the condition. On average, you will feel some relief after 10 minutes during an attack. 

Unfortunately, 10 minutes seems like an eternity when experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. While attacks may be scary, they are not dangerous. The physical and emotional pain may be almost unbearable to some, so it is important to have strategies to stop or reduce the number of attacks.

  • Browse our network of top therapist to find one that matches your needs.

  • Get private and secure emotional support weekly from your dedicated therapist.

  • Experience comprehensive care with unlimited access to your care team and primary care physician.

PlushCare-App-Steps

Home Remedies for Panic and Anxiety Attacks

If you need ideas for ways to deal with an anxiety attack or panic attack, the good news is that there are relatively simple home remedies which may be able to help you.

Here are some home remedies for panic and anxiety attacks:

  • Take slow, deep breaths
  • Identify the symptoms and tell yourself it will pass soon
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Use relaxation techniques such as imagery
  • Use aromatherapy with essential oils (such as lavender and peppermint)
  • Use multi-sensory objects or toys (like a stress relief ball)
  • Drink ice cold water; the contrast between cold and warm can help ease anxiety
  • Rub together your hands or feet on a surface such as a chair or rug; this helps anchor yourself and allows you to focus on reality
  • Visualize your anxiety attack as a wave that passes you by and becomes less intense as it crests
  • Distract yourself by using a smartphone game, meditation app, or guided relaxation session
  • Color in an adult coloring book

Treatment Options for Panic and Anxiety Attacks

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36% of those suffering from anxiety receive treatment.

The goal of treatment is to lower anxiety levels, give peace of mind, overcome fears, and reduce anxiety attacks. A combination of therapy, medication, and complementary therapies help treat anxiety.

Therapy

The first line of therapy treatment is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT changes negative thought patterns and is a widely used therapy for anxiety disorders. Research suggests that CBT is seen as the best kind of therapy for anxiety.

Medication

According to the American Psychiatric Association, medication therapy is used as a treatment option for anxiety disorders. These medications are antidepressants, anxiolytics, and beta blockers used to treat anxiety disorders.

Antidepressant medications such as SSRIs or SNRIs are used as the first line medical treatment for anxiety disorders. Prescription medications may also be beneficial, because they can reduce anxiety symptoms so that patients can participate in therapy more successfully.


Read: Can You Buy Anxiety Medication Online?


Get Panic and Anxiety Attack Treatment Online

Anxiety and panic attacks are common symptoms of anxiety disorders. Anxiety can get worse over time, if not treated properly. Do not wait for your anxiety to get better on its own.

If symptoms of anxiety are affecting your daily life, make an appointment with PlushCare today to speak with a doctor. With PlushCare, you can talk to a therapist or primary care physician online in order to get the right treatment, support, or medication for your panic or anxiety attack.


Read More About Anxiety Attacks and Panic Attacks


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

CDC. About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. Accessed on December 22, 2020 at https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/about.html

National Alliance on Mental Illness. Anxiety Disorders. Accessed on December 20, 2020 at https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders

Psychiatry.org. What Are Anxiety Disorders? Accessed December 20, 2020 at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders

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