Panic attack vs. anxiety attack: Is there a difference and what are the symptoms?

Isabel Calkins
·4 min read
Reflection in metal (brass)
Reflection in metal (brass)

The terms panic attack and anxiety attack are oftentimes used interchangeably by those unfamiliar with them, but it’s important to know that they aren’t actually the same, although, they might feel similar. With several symptoms in common, there are a few key characteristics that distinguish one from the other.

Clinical differences

The first variance is how each is clinically defined. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition), also known as the DSM-5, the term "panic attack" is used to describe a common feature associated with the condition known as panic disorder. The term “anxiety attack,” on the other hand, is not defined in the DSM-5 at all. Rather, it falls under Generalized Anxiety, or “excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at. least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).”

Symptoms

To understand whether you are dealing with generalized anxiety or a full-blown panic attack, you need to look at the intensity of the symptoms and the length of time the main symptoms occur. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, “panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that come on quickly and reach their peak within minutes. Attacks can occur unexpectedly or can be brought on by a trigger, such as a feared object or situation.” Because of the unpredictability of panic attacks, they can often lead to anxiety about when the next one will occur, creating a cycle of fear.

Anxiety, on the other hand, happens gradually after a period of excessive worry. “If the anticipation of something builds up and the high amount of stress reaches a level where it becomes overwhelming, it may feel like an "attack,”” according to VeryWellMind. It also comes down to the physical sensations in your body that determine whether you are experiencing a panic attack as opposed to anxiety.

How to combat

Ultimately, while both feel very real and scary in the moment, it is important to remember the feelings are temporary and will not last forever. It will pass, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Luckily, there are actions you can take in the moment to shorten the lifespan of both anxiety and panic attacks.

Panic attack

Kelly Scott, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Senior Therapist at Tribeca Therapy, tells Yahoo Life that “the fear of a panic attack is a real self-reinforcing cycle. When people feel an attack come on, they get scared about having the attack.” So one tactical strategy you can take when you feel an attack coming on is to let other people know what is happening. “Trusting that even if they don’t have an answer, someone could help. You just have to let it run its course and not relate to it as something you have to suffer through it yourself,” Scott says. Unfortunately, there is no immediate fix for a panic attack as in most cases, you just need to ride it out.

To help make it easier, another method is mindfulness. While a broad term, in this context it means being aware of your physical body and the physical sensations your body is experiencing. For example, if you are sitting in a restaurant and your chest is tightening up, focus on how the chair feels under you. Feel the places where your body is connecting to other things, physically. It will allow you to feel grounded in an otherwise scary moment.

Anxiety attack

For anxiety, the earlier you can intervene for yourself or with someone else, the better luck you will have at reducing the intensity of the oncoming attack. Scott recommends activating your senses in order to slow down the anxiety. “Do something physically calming. Anything that makes your body feel relaxed. Lay in a dark room, take a hot bath or even go for a run. Anything that gets you physically oriented to your body and into as calm a state as possible.”

Overall, an acute moment of fear or anxiety is totally normal. It means your body is responding in a way that reflects reality. When it becomes a pattern and disruptive, or something that is taking up a lot of space in your life, then it is time to look at long term solutions, first by consulting a medical professional who may advise therapy or even medication. But until then, remember that it will be OK. If not now, then eventually.

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