You might hear people talking about panic attacks and anxiety attacks like they’re the same thing. They are different conditions though.
Panic attacks come on suddenly and involve intense and often overwhelming fear. They are accompanied by frightening physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea.
The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes panic attacks, and categorizes them as unexpected or expected.
Unexpected panic attacks occur without an obvious cause. Expected panic attacks are “cued” by external stressors, such as phobias. Panic attacks can happen to anyone, but having more than one may be a sign of panic disorder.
Anxiety attacks aren’t recognized in the DSM-5. The DSM-5 does, however, define anxiety as a feature of a number of common psychiatric disorders. Symptoms of anxiety include worry, distress, and fear. Anxiety is usually related to the anticipation of a stressful situation, experience, or event. It may come on gradually.
The lack of diagnostic recognition of anxiety attacks means that the signs and symptoms are open to interpretation. That is, a person may describe having an “anxiety attack” and have symptoms that another has never experienced despite the second person indicating that they too have had an “anxiety attack.”
Read on to find out more about the differences between panic attacks and anxiety.
Panic and anxiety attacks may feel similar, and they share a lot of emotional and physical symptoms.
You can experience both anxiety and a panic attack at the same time. For instance, you might experience anxiety while worrying about a potentially stressful situation, such as an important presentation at work. When the situation arrives, anxiety may culminate in a panic attack.
It may be difficult to know whether what you’re experiencing is anxiety or a panic attack. Keep in mind the following:
- Anxiety is typically related to something that is perceived as stressful or threatening. Panic attacks aren’t always cued by stressors, and most often occur out of the blue.
- Anxiety can be mild, moderate, or severe. For example, anxiety may be happening in the back of your mind as you go about your day-to-day activities. Panic attacks, on the other hand, mostly involve severe, disruptive symptoms.
- During a panic attack, the body’s autonomous fight-or-flight response takes over. Physical symptoms are often more intense than symptoms of anxiety.
- While anxiety can build gradually, panic attacks usually come on abruptly.
- Panic attacks typically trigger worries or fears related to having another attack. This may have an impact on your behavior, leading you to avoid places or situations where you think you might be at risk of an attack.
Unexpected panic attacks have no clear external triggers. Expected panic attacks and anxiety can be triggered by similar things. Some common triggers include:
- a stressful job
- social situations
- phobias, such as agoraphobia (fear of crowded or open spaces), claustrophobia (fear of small spaces), and acrophobia (fear of heights)
- reminders or memories of traumatic experiences
- chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, or asthma
- chronic pain
- withdrawal from drugs or alcohol
- medication and supplements
- thyroid problems
Anxiety and panic attacks have similar risk factors. These include:
- experiencing trauma or witnessing traumatic events, either as a child or as an adult
- experiencing a stressful life event, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce
- experiencing ongoing stress and worries, such as work responsibilities, conflict in your family, or financial woes
- living with a chronic health condition or life-threatening illness
- having an anxious personality
- having another mental health disorder, such as depression
- having close family members who also have anxiety or panic disorders
- abusing drugs or alcohol
- being a woman
People who experience anxiety are at an increased risk of experiencing panic attacks. However, having anxiety doesn’t mean you will experience a panic attack.
Reaching a diagnosis
Doctors can’t diagnose anxiety attacks, but they can diagnose:
- anxiety symptoms
- anxiety disorders
- panic attacks
- panic disorders
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and conduct tests to rule out other health conditions with similar symptoms, such as heart disease or thyroid problems.
To get a diagnosis, your doctor may conduct:
- a physical exam
- blood tests
- a heart test, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
- a psychological evaluation or questionnaire
You should speak to your doctor or another mental health professional to find out what you can do to both prevent and treat anxiety- and panic-related symptoms. Having a treatment plan and sticking to it when an attack strikes can help you feel like you’re in control.
If you feel an anxiety or panic attack coming on, try the following:
- Take slow deep breaths. When you feel your breath quickening, focus your attention on each inhale and exhale. Feel your stomach fill with air as you inhale. Count down from four as you exhale. Repeat until your breathing slows.
- Recognize and accept what you’re experiencing. If you’ve already experienced an anxiety or panic attack, you know that it can be incredibly frightening. Remind yourself that the symptoms will pass and you’ll be alright.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness-based interventions are increasingly used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Mindfulness is a technique that can help you ground your thoughts in the present. You can practice mindfulness by actively observing thoughts and sensations without reacting to them.
- Use relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques include guided imagery, aromatherapy, and muscle relaxation. If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety or a panic attack, try doing things that you find relaxing. Close your eyes, take a bath, or use lavender, which has relaxing effects.
The following lifestyle changes can help you to prevent anxiety and panic attacks, as well as reduce the severity of symptoms when an attack occurs:
- Reduce and manage sources of stress in your life.
- Learn how to identify and stop negative thoughts.
- Get regular, moderate exercise.
- Practice meditation or yoga.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Join a support group for people with anxiety or panic attacks.
- Limit your consumption of alcohol, drugs, and caffeine.
Speak to your doctor about other treatments for anxiety and panic attacks. Some common treatments include psychotherapy or medication, including:
- antianxiety drugs
Oftentimes, your doctor will recommend a combination of treatments. You may also need to alter your treatment plan over time.
Panic attacks and anxiety attacks aren’t the same. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, only panic attacks are identified in the DSM-5.
Anxiety and panic attacks have similar symptoms, causes, and risk factors. However, panic attacks tend to be more intense and are often accompanied by more severe physical symptoms.
You should contact a doctor if anxiety- or panic-related symptoms are getting in the way of your everyday life.