Updated on 11/20/2020
Knowing the difference between an anxiety attack and a 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 experiencing, it will be difficult to find the appropriate treatment or develop useful relaxation techniques and coping skills. You might waste time addressing the wrong issues.
By understanding the symptoms of anxiety attacks vs. panic attacks, you can more efficiently address your mental health and the issues behind the attacks. Let’s start by 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). Instead, the term “anxiety attack” is a colloquial phrase coined by anxiety sufferers.
The definition of an anxiety attack
“Anxiety attack” is actually a colloquial term that anxiety sufferers created to describe intense or extended periods of anxiety. Although an anxiety attack is more intense than a mere feeling of anxiety, 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 and more refined over time. Nonetheless, there still isn’t an official definition for an anxiety attack.
By conducting research, interviewing anxiety experts and comparing definitions from various parties with clinical experience, we formulated a clear definition:
Symptoms of an anxiety attack
An anxiety attack is an intense and/or extended period of anxiety. An anxiety attack feels 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.
An anxiety attack can include 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
- Physical symptoms such as 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 a 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.
What do anxiety attacks feel like?
Anxiety attacks can make you feel restless, — feeling wound up or on edge — fatigued, or you may experience physical symptoms like muscle tension. Other symptoms may include difficulty concentrating, feeling irritable, or having trouble sleeping. An anxiety attack can be terrifying; it can feel so scary that it might even make you think you’re going to die. Rest assured, anxiety attacks are not dangerous and the feeling will go away.
Until it passes, you might experience some of the unsettling symptoms discussed earlier. It is important to remember that what you’re feeling is temporary, know that you will get through it. Although it might be extremely uncomfortable in the moment, you will regain composure soon enough. Some coping strategies to employ during an attack include taking deep breaths through your stomach and talking out loud to yourself. They both have a calming effect on the surge of irrepressible panic and stressed breathing you might feel during an attack.
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.”
Panic attack symptoms
Sometimes sufferers of panic attacks think they are having a heart attack because the feeling can be so abrupt and overpowering. Some rush to the hospital or call 911 because they don’t realize that it is actually a panic attack, which will soon subside. They usually have at least a few of the following symptoms that last 10-15 minutes:
- 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
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.
Repeatedly experiencing panic attacks is usually a symptom of panic disorder. If you think you have panic disorder, consider working with a mental health professional to alleviate some of the burden. Seeing a therapist, whether in-person, or online, will also be a good way for you to process your anxiety and learn valuable relaxation techniques.
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 is so traumatic that it 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
While distinguishing anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be confusing, the table below will help you quickly compare and reference the key differences between an anxiety attack vs. a panic attack.
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, which can often confuse the issue even more.
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 more on the topic or work with an anxiety specialist who really understands the differences. If you don’t understand the terms and their differences, you might end up treating a panic disorder that you don’t actually have. In the worst case scenario, you could even 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 your unique condition presents. With luck, this article has been helpful in shedding some light on the differences between these similar terms!
Commonly Asked Questions
If you feel anxious you can try to slow your heart rate by taking deep breaths, or by slowly counting to 10. Make sure you eat well, sleep well, and limit alcohol and caffeine if you’re feeling stressed. You should also try to exercise daily and adopt habits like practicing yoga, listening to music, or meditating to support your mental health. You should try and be active in your community, volunteer work makes a great break from a stressful routine. It can also help you to journal your feelings to understand what triggers your anxiety, talking to someone helps too, be it a friend, a family member, or a therapist.
Anxiety attacks are temporary and will not kill you, although the experience includes unsettling symptoms like chest pain, flushed skin, fast heart rate, and difficulty breathing, which can be terrifying. To get over an anxiety attack, you should first notice your symptoms and understand what you are experiencing. You can relieve your body by breathing through your stomach or by talking to yourself out loud, but you can also just stay in the moment and wait for it to pass. If you think your anxiety is disrupting your daily functioning, then you might want to talk to a therapist to learn more about your condition.
Anxiety can be intimidating to cope with, but it’s important to learn how to combat it. Grounding techniques can help you regulate your body and condition it to face your anxiety. These exercises include deep interval breathing, breadth-focused stretches, exercising with exertion, and meditating. They improve our mindfulness and help us stay connected, even when we’re experiencing an anxiety attack. Practicing these grounding techniques might help you feel better prepared to tackle future worries, and relieve your fear of anxiety. If you feel that your anxiety is disrupting your daily habits and relationships, you might want to consider consulting with a therapist regarding ways to cope with anxiety.