Knowing the difference between an anxiety attack vs. panic attack is more than an issue of semantics. It can shape the course of your mental health. If you don’t know which one you are having, it will be difficult to find the appropriate treatment or develop useful coping skills. You might waste time addressing the wrong issues.
By understanding the issue of anxiety attacks vs. panic attacks, you can more efficiently address your mental health and the issues behind the attacks. It starts with understanding the more confusing of the two, anxiety attacks.
What Are Anxiety Attacks? – Clinical Terms vs. Colloquial Terms
“Anxiety attack” is not an official clinical term. The latest edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” [DSM-5], a book the vast majority of mental health professionals abide by, does not list it (we’ll be sure to update this article if that fact changes during the next release of the DSM).
“Anxiety attack” is actually a colloquial term anxiety sufferers created to describe intense or extended periods of anxiety. An anxiety attack is more intense than a mere feeling of anxiety, but it isn’t as severe as a panic attack.
People began using the term because they felt like anxiety was attacking their life by interrupting periods of calmness, according to therapist Helen Odessky, author of “Stop Anxiety from Stopping You.” Many clients used the term in therapy, so mental health professionals became aware of it and began forming more detailed definitions.
The definition and distinction between an anxiety attack vs. panic attack has become clearer, more refined. Nonetheless, there still isn’t an official definition of an anxiety attack.
By conducting research, interviewing anxiety experts and comparing definitions from various parties with clinical experience, we formulated a clear definition:
The Definition of an Anxiety Attack
An anxiety attack is an intense and/or extended period of anxiety. It is more severe than the simple feeling of anxiety but less severe than a panic attack. It can last anywhere from minutes to hours, even days and weeks.
It usually carries one or more of the following symptoms:
- Restlessness, feeling wound-up or on edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating or having your mind go blank
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling worries
- Sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
Therapist Ginger Poag defined an anxiety attack as, “a period of apprehension about possible future events.” Sometimes an anxiety attack is the prelude to a panic attack.
“I have had patients who have experienced an anxiety attack on their way to the airport because they have had a panic attack on the airplane,” Poag said.
Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks are not necessarily signs of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a natural response to certain stimuli or situations, and anxiety attacks are only more intense forms of that emotion.
Anxiety attacks often cause patterns of avoidance or excessive caution, said therapist Emma Levine. For example, someone who has experienced anxiety attacks because of social anxiety might avoid the places or situations that have made him or her anxious.
The Definition of a Panic Attack
Panic attacks are easy to define because there is a clinical consensus on the definition.
Here is an official definition from the DSM:
“A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.”
They usually have at least a few of the following symptoms:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Feeling of unreality or detachment
These symptoms usually last 10-15 minutes. Sometimes sufferers think they are having a heart attack. Some rush to the hospital or call 911 because they don’t know it is a panic attack.
With panic attacks people usually feel a sense of immediate threat, Levine said. This causes them to respond by crying for help or trying to escape whatever predicament they are in.
Sometimes people only have one or two panic attacks in their lives. They usually happen under extreme amounts of stress or pressure.
Certain traumatic events can eventually cause someone to develop panic disorder. For example, therapist Shannon Nuñez, who is also the Clinical Director at the Pathway to Hope addiction treatment center, has worked with clients who developed panic disorder after witnessing sudden deaths. Witnessing a sudden death can make people feel like they could die in a moment and at any time, causing panic attacks.
Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack: A Summary of the Differences
So you can quickly compare and reference the key differences between an anxiety attack vs. a panic attack, we created the table below:
Why We Need To Make Sure People Understand the Difference
While conducting research for this article, we encountered more than a dozen mental health professionals who mistakenly believed the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” were synonymous. They were licensed professionals, but none of them had a specialty in anxiety. Because “anxiety attack” is not a clinical term, they assumed it was a synonym for “panic attack.” This caused them to use the terms interchangeably.
People who deal with anxiety attacks or panic attacks often make similar mistakes. Some suffer from panic attacks but use the term “anxiety attack” to describe their symptoms and vice versa.
This confusion is why potential therapy clients and other anxiety sufferers need to educate themselves or work with an anxiety specialist. If you don’t understand the terms and their differences, you might end up treating a panic disorder you don’t actually have. In the worst case scenario, you could become dependent on a medication you don’t need. That’s why it’s vital to seek out information about your specific condition and work with someone who is knowledgeable about the challenges that condition presents.