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Panic attack vs Anxiety attack - What's difference between them?

Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on Jul 19, 2019.

Official Answer

by Drugs.com

Many people, including health professionals, use the terms panic attack and anxiety attack interchangeably. But although they may share some symptoms, they are not the same.

Perhaps the most significant difference is that panic attack is a defined medical condition (as described by DSM V- the classification system used to characterize conditions affecting a person’s mental health), an anxiety attack is a colloquial term that has come into widespread use by people with anxiety disorders to describe heightened periods of anxiousness. Other differences include:

  • Panic attacks can occur without a trigger whereas anxiety usually occurs in response to a perceived stressor or threat
  • Panic attacks are intense and disruptive and sometimes the physical symptoms are worse than the anxiety
  • Panic attacks often involve a sense of "unreality" and detachment. Anxiety attacks can vary from mild to severe
  • Panic attacks usually happen suddenly, while anxiety attacks become gradually more intense over minutes, hours, or days
  • Panic attacks usually subside within a few minutes, while anxiety symptoms can persist for long periods.

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are a recognized disorder with a series of criteria that must be fulfilled before a doctor can diagnose a panic attack or somebody as having panic attacks. The DSM-V criteria describe a panic attack as "A sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause". At least four of the following symptoms must also exist:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • lightheadedness or faintness
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Feeling of unreality or detachment
  • Headache
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Rapid, racing or pounding heart rate
  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking.

Symptoms of a panic attack are usually short-lived, lasting around 10-15 minutes. Some people may feel like they are having a heart attack and call 911. The most significant symptom of a panic attack is feeling a sense of immediate threat, which may cause a person to cry for help or try to escape whatever predicament they are in.

Panic attacks can either come on out of the blue (unexpected panic attacks) or happen in response to a trigger, such as a phobia (expected panic attacks). During a panic attack, the body’s autonomous fight-or-flight response takes over and physical symptoms are often more intense than symptoms of anxiety.

Panic attacks can happen to anyone, but having more than one may be a sign of a panic disorder. In contrast, anxiety attacks almost always are associated with a trigger and are much less intense than panic attacks. Some people have frequent or regular panic attacks; others may only experience one or two in their lives. Repeated attacks are usually a symptom of panic disorder. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be experiencing panic attacks.

People who have experienced sudden deaths or other traumatic events are more prone to having panic attacks. Panic attacks mainly affect those with panic disorder, they are not typically associated with other mental health conditions.

What is an anxiety attack?

As mentioned previously, an anxiety attack is not a recognized medical condition as defined by the DSM-V. But this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Rather it is a term people with anxiety use to describe very intense or extended periods of anxiety.

Many people live with low-level anxiety on a daily basis. But every now and then, their anxiousness may increase, either gradually or suddenly, to a higher level than is usual for them. Symptoms of these anxiety attacks are more severe than the simple feeling of anxiety but less severe than a panic attack and may be short-lived or persist for days, sometimes weeks. Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling particularly wound up or on edge
  • Feeling irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating or periods where your mind goes blank
  • Having difficulty controlling worries
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
  • Tire easily
  • Restlessness.

Sometimes an anxiety attack is a prelude to a panic attack. For example, some people have experienced anxiety attacks on the way to an airport because they have previously had a panic attack on an airplane.

Anxiety attacks do not necessarily indicate that a person has an anxiety disorder, although anxiety as a symptom is linked to numerous mental health conditions, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and PTSD. Anxiety is appropriate in some circumstances and anxiety attacks are only more intense forms of that emotion.

What should I do during a panic or anxiety attack?

The following strategies may help:

  • Acknowledge what is happening and sit down somewhere where it is quiet
  • Breathe slowly and deeply
  • Try relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery
  • Practice mindfulness.

Daily exercise, a healthy diet, and at least eight hours sleep a night may also help to reduce stress and anxiety.

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