anxiety attack vs. panic attack

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: What’s the Difference?

Have you ever felt an overwhelming surge of fear or unease, leaving you gasping for breath and your heart pounding? Moments like these can be incredibly distressing, and many people often use the terms “panic attack vs. anxiety attack” interchangeably. But are they the same thing? 

In this article, we’ll unravel the mysteries surrounding panic attacks and anxiety attacks, exploring their fundamental differences and shedding light on these often misunderstood experiences.

What is an Anxiety Attack?

An anxiety attack is a manifestation of heightened stress and worry. Individuals experiencing an anxiety attack often feel a sense of impending doom, restlessness, and an increased heart rate. These attacks can be triggered by specific stressors or come about seemingly without warning. Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks usually build up gradually and may last for an extended period.

Common symptoms of an anxiety attack include:

  1. Intense worry or fear
  2. Restlessness or irritability
  3. Muscle tension
  4. Difficulty concentrating
  5. Fatigue
  6. Increased heart rate
  7. Shallow breathing

What is a Panic Attack?

On the other hand, a panic attack is a sudden and intense surge of fear that reaches its peak within minutes. Unlike anxiety attacks, panic attacks often strike without warning and can be accompanied by a feeling of losing control. People who experience panic attacks may believe they are having a heart attack or even dying. The symptoms of a panic attack are both physical and psychological, creating a distressing and overwhelming experience.

Common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  1. Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered
  2. Chest pain or discomfort
  3. Rapid heart rate
  4. Trembling or shaking
  5. Sweating
  6. Nausea or abdominal distress
  7. Dizziness or lightheadedness
  8. Chills or hot flashes

Symptoms of Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

A panic attack is like a sudden storm that engulfs both mind and body, leaving a person in a state of sheer terror. The symptoms are intense and often peak within a short period. Individuals undergoing a panic attack may experience:

  • Rapid Heartbeat: A pounding heart is a hallmark of a panic attack, making the person feel like their heart is racing out of control.
  • Shortness of Breath: Many people report difficulty breathing or a sensation of being unable to catch their breath during a panic attack.
  • Chest Pain or Discomfort: The fear and stress during a panic attack can manifest physically, causing chest pain or discomfort.
  • Dizziness or Lightheadedness: A feeling of being lightheaded or dizzy is common during a panic attack, contributing to an overall sense of losing control.
  • Trembling or Shaking: Physical symptoms such as trembling or shaking are often present, reflecting the body’s response to extreme stress.

Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, tend to build up more gradually and are often associated with persistent worry or fear. The symptoms of an anxiety attack may include:

  • Excessive Worry: Anxiety attacks are often preceded by prolonged periods of excessive worry or fear about a specific situation or a generalized sense of impending doom.
  • Muscle Tension: Physical symptoms such as muscle tension, especially in the neck and shoulders, are common during an anxiety attack.
  • Restlessness: A sense of restlessness or feeling on edge is frequently reported, reflecting the emotional turmoil associated with anxiety.
  • Fatigue: Chronic anxiety can lead to fatigue, both physical and mental, as the mind and body are continuously on high alert.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: Anxiety attacks may interfere with a person’s ability to concentrate or focus on tasks, contributing to a cycle of increased stress.

Causes of Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

Panic attacks often seem to strike out of the blue, with no apparent trigger. However, they can be associated with:

  • Genetic Factors: A family history of panic disorders may increase the likelihood of experiencing panic attacks.
  • Neurotransmitter Imbalance: Changes in neurotransmitter levels, particularly serotonin and norepinephrine, are thought to contribute to the occurrence of panic attacks.
  • Major Life Stressors: Traumatic events, major life changes, or ongoing stress can trigger panic attacks.

Anxiety attacks, while also influenced by genetic and neurochemical factors, are often more closely tied to:

  • Chronic Stress: Persistent stress, whether related to work, relationships, or other life factors, can contribute to the development of anxiety attacks.
  • Personality Factors: Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism or a tendency to overthink, may increase the risk of anxiety attacks.
  • Trauma or PTSD: Individuals who have experienced trauma or have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be more prone to anxiety attacks.

Risk Factors for Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

Panic attacks are intense, sudden episodes of fear that physical symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, and dizziness can accompany. They often feel like a surge of terror that peaks within minutes. Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of experiencing a panic attack, such as a family history of panic disorders, high levels of stress, or a history of traumatic events. Substance abuse, particularly with stimulants like caffeine or certain drugs, can also trigger panic attacks.

On the other hand, anxiety attacks are characterized by a more prolonged sense of worry and fear. Specific stressors like work pressures or relationship issues may trigger these attacks. Chronic medical conditions, a family history of anxiety disorders, and a history of trauma can contribute to the development of anxiety attacks. Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks may build up over time, often as a response to ongoing stressors in life.

Diagnosing Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

Diagnosing panic attacks involves a thorough examination of both the physical and psychological symptoms experienced during an episode. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines specific criteria for diagnosing panic disorder, which includes recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and persistent concern or worry about having more attacks. The presence of agoraphobia, fear of situations where escape might be difficult, is also considered in the diagnosis.

Diagnosing anxiety attacks is often more complex, as anxiety is a broad term that encompasses various disorders. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is one condition where anxiety attacks may be prevalent. Diagnosis involves assessing the duration and intensity of anxiety symptoms, along with their impact on daily functioning. Health professionals consider factors such as excessive worry, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances when diagnosing anxiety disorders.

Treatment and Medication for Panic Attacks vs. Anxiety Attacks

panic attack vs. anxiety attack

Counseling and Psychotherapy

Both panic attacks and anxiety attacks can significantly impact an individual’s daily life, making it essential to seek appropriate treatment. Counseling and psychotherapy are valuable tools in addressing these attacks’ root causes and triggers.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This widely used therapeutic approach helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with panic and anxiety. Through CBT, individuals learn coping mechanisms and develop strategies to manage their reactions to stressors.

  • Exposure Therapy: Particularly beneficial for specific phobias and panic disorders, exposure therapy involves gradually facing and overcoming feared situations. This can desensitize individuals to triggers, reducing the intensity and frequency of panic or anxiety attacks over time.


Medication may sometimes be recommended to alleviate symptoms and facilitate the therapeutic process.

  • Antidepressants: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to manage symptoms of anxiety disorders. These medications can help regulate neurotransmitter levels in the brain, promoting a more balanced mood and reducing the likelihood of panic or anxiety attacks.

  • Anti-Anxiety Medications: Benzodiazepines, such as lorazepam or alprazolam, may be prescribed for short-term relief during particularly distressing episodes. However, these medications are typically used cautiously due to their potential for dependence and side effects.

Home Remedies for Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks

Deep Breathing Exercises

  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing to regulate your breath and calm the nervous system. Inhale deeply through your nose, hold for a few seconds, and exhale slowly through your mouth.

1. Mindfulness Meditation

  • Incorporate mindfulness meditation into your daily routine to cultivate awareness and reduce stress. Focusing on the present moment can help alleviate both panic and anxiety.

2. Aromatherapy

  • Certain scents, such as lavender and chamomile, are known for their calming properties. Use essential oils or scented candles to create a soothing environment during distress.

3. Regular Exercise

  • Engage in regular physical activity to release endorphins, the body’s natural mood lifters. Exercise is a powerful tool for managing anxiety and panic by promoting overall well-being.

4. Create a Safe Space

  • Designate a calming space at home where you can retreat during moments of heightened anxiety or panic. Surround yourself with comforting items, like blankets or soothing music.

5. Stay Hydrated and Maintain a Balanced Diet

  • Dehydration and poor nutrition can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and panic. Ensure you are drinking enough water and consuming a balanced diet rich in nutrients.

6. Reach Out for Support

  • Don’t hesitate to lean on your support network. Share your feelings with friends, family, or a mental health professional who can offer guidance and understanding.

In conclusion, while panic attacks and anxiety attacks share similarities, they are distinct experiences with unique characteristics. Recognizing these differences is pivotal for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with panic attacks, anxiety attacks, or any mental health challenges, don’t hesitate to seek help. Reach out to a mental health professional today to start the journey toward healing and well-being. Remember, you don’t have to face these challenges alone.