Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: Understanding the Differences

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: Understanding the Differences

Reviewed by:
Brenda Camacho, MD
Staff Psychiatrist
at Talkiatry
August 29, 2023
In this article

Intense fear, swirling thoughts, shallow breaths, rapid heart rate: is it a panic attack or an anxiety attack? These terms are often used interchangeably but are they really the same thing?

Our expert psychiatrists have the answers. Here we’ll talk about the difference between anxiety and panic attacks and how to know when it’s time to seek professional help.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a short episode of intense anxiety, fear of dying/losing control/”going crazy”, or terror, which causes physical symptoms. If you’ve experienced a panic attack, you know how intense and scary they can be.

Panic attacks usually occur spontaneously, often in the absence of any obvious trigger or any true external threat or danger.

While more research is needed to understand exactly why you might experience a panic attack, experts believe that dysfunction of the amygdala, the part of your brain that processes fear and other emotions may be the cause. This dysfunction triggers your fight-or-flight response even though there is no obvious threat or danger, and can happen abruptly while you’re sleeping, watching TV, or in other stress-free situations.

Panic attacks can typically last between a few minutes to about half an hour, but the physical and emotional effects of an attack may last for a few hours. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5), a panic attack is defined by at least four of the physical and psychological symptoms outlined in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria.


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What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

Symptoms of a panic attack are generally not life-threatening, even though they can feel extremely frightening (despite no obvious danger) and often severe enough to impact your quality of life and well-being. Symptoms may include:  

  • feeling short of breath or smothering
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • Heart palpitations, pounding, or accelerated heart rate
  • trembling or shaking
  • nausea or abdominal distress
  • feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint
  • chills or heat sensations
  • sweating
  • tingling or numbness
  • intense fear or intense discomfort
  • feeling like you’re going to die
  • fear of losing control or “going crazy"
  • derealization (feelings of unreality)
  • depersonalization (feelings of being detached from yourself)

Related article: How to relieve chest pain from anxiety

What is an anxiety attack?

Unlike a panic attack, an anxiety attack isn’t an official clinical term and is not defined in the DSM-5, so its definition will depend on who you ask. Some people use the term to describe a panic attack while others use it to describe a buildup of stress or anxiety that results in a physical or emotional reaction and overwhelming feelings of fear or worry – though not as extreme as a panic attack.

If you’re experiencing constant worry or frequently feeling overwhelmed by intense emotions of fear, this could be a sign that you are living with an anxiety disorder. Professional help is available, and treatment can help you manage your symptoms.

Everyday stress can sometimes get overwhelming but there are things you can do to cope. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or even cognitive behavioral therapy can help.

For psychiatrist-backed tips on coping with stress and anxiety check out: Tips on how to calm down during anxiety or stress

Do panic attacks and anxiety attacks have different triggers?

Panic attacks often occur without apparent warning, but often people can identify certain triggers for their panic attacks. Common triggers include things like: stress, lack of sleep, caffeine, social situations and sights smells or sounds that remind you of a traumatic event.

You may feel physical symptoms of anxiety in response to specific stressors like:  

  • relationship issues
  • financial issues
  • work or school related stress
  • worrying about the future
  • skipping meals
  • excessive caffeine
  • health issues
  • social settings

What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders are a group of conditions with symptoms that often involve repeated events of extreme fear and anxiety, which can interfere with daily activities. Though it can vary from person to person, common symptoms include:  

  • having a sense of impending panic or danger
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feeling lightheaded and dizzy  
  • restlessness  
  • shortness of breath  
  • irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • sweating  
  • nausea  
  • poor sleep quality
  • headaches and backaches

How can you tell the difference between a panic attack and anxiety?

Unlike anxiety which usually pops up in response to specific stressors, panic attacks usually occurs abruptly – whether you’re feeling anxious or calm – and symptoms are generally brief. Not just that, but panic attacks can occur out of nowhere and the level of distress is typically more intense than what is felt when you’re experiencing anxiety in the absence of a panic attack.

If you experience a panic attack, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental health condition like an anxiety disorder. But repeated panic attacks that start to affect your daily life, can be a sign of something more serious like panic disorder.

To learn about anxiety disorders and how they are treated check out: Get anxiety relief from an online psychiatrist

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders that involve multiple unexpected panic attacks. These attacks happen frequently, often without an obvious cause and are not related to another physical or mental health condition. About 4.7% U.S. adults will experience panic disorder at some time in their lives; but not everyone who experiences a panic attack develops panic disorder.

If you think you may be living with panic disorder, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a mental health professional who can recommend a treatment plan that’s right for you.

When should you consult a professional?

If your anxiety or that of a loved one is persistent and interfering with daily life, it’s best to seek professional treatment. Anxiety disorders are a common concern in the U.S.; in fact, over 30% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life - and severe symptoms can be difficult to manage alone.

When consulting with a professional, there may be a physical exam to ensure physical symptoms are not related to another health condition. And because there are several types of anxiety disorders, it’s important to work with a qualified professional, like a psychiatrist to get a correct diagnosis and treatment plan to overcome emotional and physical symptoms. Panic disorders are commonly treated with psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medications (antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications), or a combination of both.

Anxiety treatment with Talkiatry

Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, OCD, depression, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.

The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

Sources  

The role of the amygdala in the pathophysiology of panic disorder: evidence from neuroimaging studies | NIH  

Anxiety disorders | NIH

Panic attacks and panic disorder | Mayo Clinic

Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms | NIH  

Panic Disorder | NIH

Dr. Brenda Y. Camacho holds the position of Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. She is board-certified in Adult Psychiatry. She has been practicing for over 25 years.

While having treated a wide range of adult patients, Dr. Camacho’s primary focus is treating adult outpatients with mood or psychotic disorders. Her practice focuses on medication management. Typically, she offers this in conjunction with supportive or insight-oriented therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. On occasion, Dr. Camacho will believe additional therapy is also needed and asks that you bring a therapist into your care team to provide the best outcome.

Dr. Camacho completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University. She received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA and then continued with Temple for her residency in adult psychiatry. After completing training, Dr. Camacho worked at Cooper Hospital in Camden NJ as Associate Director of Consultation/Liaison Service and Psychiatry Residency Training and Co-Director of the Neuropsychiatry Clinic. She then began working exclusively in outpatient settings, joined NewPoint Behavioral Health Care, and served as Medical Director before and after their merge with Acenda Integrated Health.

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