Panic attack and Anxiety attack: How to Spot the Difference

Most people interchangeably use panic attack and anxiety attack, but the truth is that the two terms are very different. Key characteristics distinguish one from the other, though they have several similar symptoms. These types of attack have different intensities and duration.

READ ALSO: Anxiety Disorders: Types and Treatment

Panic attacks are usually more extreme than anxiety attacks. Panic attack usually occur suddenly, while anxiety attacks are often associated with a trigger.

Symptoms of anxiety are linked to many mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and trauma, while panic attacks mainly affect those with panic disorder.

Signs and symptoms of Panic attack

Panic attacks come on suddenly, without any palpable trigger. Symptoms include:

  • chest pain
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • hot flashes or chills
  • nausea
  • shaking
  • a racing or pounding heartbeat
  • stomach pain
  • shortness of breath
  • numbness or tingling in the extremities
  • sweating
  • the feeling of being choked or smothered

READ ALSO: Can Hypnosis Treat Anxiety?

People experiencing a panic attack may also:

  • feel like they are going crazy
  • have a sudden fright that they will die
  • feel a loss of control
  • feel detached from themselves and their surroundings

After an attack, many people feel worried and stressed for the rest of the day. Symptoms of panic tend to peak after 10 minutes, then wane gradually. However, several panic attacks can occur in a row, making it appear like an attack is lasting for much longer.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety attack

Unlike panic attacks which come on unexpectedly, anxiety attack occurs after a period of extreme worry. Symptoms may become more pronounced over a few minutes or hours. They are typically less intense than those of panic attacks.

Anxiety attack symptoms include:

  • chest pain
  • fear
  • being easily startled
  • dizziness
  • irritability
  • loss of concentration
  • muscle pain
  • numbness or tingling in the extremities
  • a rapid heart rate
  • restlessness
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • sleep disturbances
  • the feeling of being choked or smothered
  • worry and distress

Anxiety symptoms often last longer than the symptoms of a panic attack. They may persist for days, weeks, or months.

READ ALSO: Types of Phobias and Treatment

Differentiating between panic and anxiety attacks

It can be difficult to tell the difference between panic and anxiety attacks since the symptoms are so similar. However, there are some tips that can help:

  • Panic attacks usually occur without a trigger. Anxiety is a response to a perceived stress or threat.
  • Symptoms of a panic attack are intense and unsettling. They often involve a sense of “weirdness” and detachment. Anxiety symptoms vary in intensity, from mild to severe.
  • Panic attacks appear abruptly without warning, while anxiety symptoms become gradually more intense over minutes, hours, or days.
  • Panic attacks subside after a few minutes, while anxiety symptoms can prevail for longer periods.

What are the causes?

Unexpected attacks like panic attacks have no outward triggers. Anxiety attacks and expected panic attacks can be triggered by:

  • Caffeine
  • work stresses
  • withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
  • social stresses
  • memories of past trauma
  • chronic conditions or chronic pain
  • medications or supplements
  • several phobias
  • driving

Risk factors of panic attacks

People are more likely to experience panic attacks if they have:

  • an anxious disposition
  • another mental health issue, such as bipolar disorder, depression, or an anxiety disorder
  • family members with anxiety or panic disorders
  • a chronic medical condition, such as a thyroid disorder, diabetes, or heart disease
  • issues with alcohol or drug abuse
  • ongoing stresses in their personal or professional lives
  • experienced a stressful event, such as a divorce or bereavement
  • traumatic experience in the past
  • witnessed a traumatic event

Females are more likely than males to have anxiety or panic attacks.

READ ALSO: Avoid These Foods If You Have Anxiety or Depression


A doctor or mental health professional can identify a panic attack, panic disorder, or anxiety disorder.

They base their diagnoses on definitions contained in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

These professionals cannot diagnose an anxiety attack, because it is not a clinically defined condition in the DSM-5. They can, however, recognize the symptoms of anxiety.

To diagnose any of these conditions, a doctor will discuss symptoms and life events. They may also perform a psychological assessment to see what category the symptoms fall into.

It may be necessary to rule out physiological conditions that share similar symptoms.

To do this, a doctor may perform:

  • a physical examination
  • blood tests
  • heart tests, such as an electrocardiogram

What to do during a panic or anxiety attack

The following strategies can help:

Acknowledge what is happening: The symptoms of the attack can be extremely scary, so recognizing the situation can reduce anxiety and fear.

Breathe slowly and deeply: Difficulty breathing is among the most common and disturbing symptoms of these types of attack. To slow breathing down, focus the attention on the breath. Inhale and exhale at a slow and steady rate until symptoms dwindle.

Relaxation techniques: Methods of relaxation, such as progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery, can reduce feelings of panic and anxiety.

Home remedies

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommend the following home remedies for anxiety and stress:

  • uphold a positive attitude
  • sleep for 8 hours a night
  • manage or reduce stressors
  • discover the triggers
  • practice yoga and meditation
  • limit alcohol and caffeine intake
  • eat healthful and balanced meals
  • sleep for 8 hours a night
  • exercise daily

Medical treatments

Therapy can help to identify triggers and manage symptoms. One type, called cognitive behavioral therapy, may be helpful for people with anxiety and panic disorders.

Does medication help?

Medication can reduce symptoms in people with severe or recurrent panic or anxiety. It can be used in conjunction with therapy or as a stand-alone treatment.

A doctor may prescribe:

  • anti-anxiety drugs
  • benzodiazepines
  • antidepressants


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