Am I Having a Panic Attack or an Anxiety Attack?

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Panic Attack

Anxiety and panic attacks can come out of nowhere and leave you confused about what you’ve just experienced. Neither of these conditions is pleasant to experience and many individuals can tell you about how sudden and concerning the whole experience was.

Maybe you’re up a little late getting some work done when you suddenly have a sharp chest pain for a couple of seconds. It goes away really quickly and you wonder if you imagined it. When it happens another time you start getting really warm and sweating. Could it be a heart attack or some other heart condition? 

You might have had a panic attack. Panic attacks are commonly talked about and many people experience them. They can also be a part of a larger anxiety disorder called panic disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), panic disorder affects 2.4 million people in the U.S. every year.

Anxiety attacks are lesser known in public conversation and are often grouped together with panic attacks. It’s a common misconception that anxiety attacks are the same things as panic attacks, but this is completely untrue.

Although the two conditions are often used interchangeably, they are distinct and can have different symptoms and origins. 

In this article we will discuss the differences between these two conditions, how to help yourself or someone experiencing an attack, and the larger possibility of experiencing a panic or other anxiety disorder.

Differences Between Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks

Before diving into the differences between these two, let’s take a look at the symptoms that they share. The overlap of these symptoms often contributes to the confusion and lack of distinction between the two conditions.

Shared Symptoms:

All the symptoms listed below often occur in both a panic attack and an anxiety attack. However, be sure to keep in mind that every individual is unique! Some symptoms might affect certain individuals but not others. The most important thing you can do is to pay attention to your body’s signals and identify any potential triggers that are making you feel anxious or different.

  • A tendency to worry excessively or inability to stop worrying
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Irritability

As we can see in the overlapping symptoms and the names of these conditions, worry and anxiety are a defining feature of these attacks. These similarities often lead people to conflate the two terms with one another, but there are some important differences between these two conditions that we will take a closer look at.

Panic Attacks

anxiety attackA panic attack is something that can occur out of the blue. If you have ever experienced a panic attack or know someone who has, you know that it can happen without any warning and be a very unpleasant and even scary experience. A person who is experiencing a panic attack can feel intense fear and believe they are dying or losing control in some way.

During a panic attack, it’s common to feel shaky or experiencing trembling. Excessive sweating, disorientation, and nausea can also occur. Panic attacks are sometimes confused with heart attacks.

Usually an episode of panic will last ten to fifteen minutes with symptoms rising to a peak before beginning to subside. Although a trigger such as a phobia can cause an episode, triggers are not needed to incite panic attacks. Panic attacks can occur due to extreme stress, but they can also occur due to genetics or chemical imbalances in your brain.

Experiencing a panic attack can cause an individual to go to great lengths to avoid a location or situation where they might have had a panic attack. If panic attacks occur frequently enough, they may begin to heavily impact an individual’s normal schedule and quality of life. If this is the case, consider seeking professional help. It’s possible that frequent panic attacks can be a sign of a larger panic disorder. Panic attacks, if they occur often, have the potential to make your life more difficult and can be difficult to manage by yourself. Treatment can help you reclaim parts of your life that may have been hampered by panic attacks.

Anxiety Attacks

An anxiety attack is not quite as severe in some ways as a panic attack. An anxiety attack could be understood as an enhanced period of anxiety and stress. One of the major differences between this condition and a panic attack is that anxiety attacks require a stressor or trigger in order to occur. 

Panic attacks, on the other hand, do not always need a trigger. Certainly, triggers can and do bring about panic attacks, but they also can happen at any time. Panic attacks are not as restricted to particular conditions or emotions as anxiety attacks are. Panic attacks can take place when driving a car or grocery shopping.

Anxiety attacks are more often provoked by a trigger that causes an increase in anxiety. For example, when walking down a dark alley at night, one might experience an anxiety attack because of the insecurity one might feel in terms of safety. Anxiety attacks usually subside once the individual is removed from the situation that triggered the episode. Once that individual moves out of the alley and into a more crowded and well-lit environment, the anxiety-inducing stressors are left behind.

Keeping track of triggers and situations that seem to provoke heightened anxiety can be very helpful in managing anxiety attacks. However, if you find that you often have periods of heightened anxiety, you may want to consider getting the opinion of a healthcare professional.

What You Should Do During a Panic or Anxiety Attack

Knowing how to react when you experience a panic or anxiety attack may help you manage your symptoms a little better. Although you might not be able to entirely avoid the experience, some small actions may be able to help you gain more control in the situation.

Hyperventilation is a common symptom of panic attacks and can also be caused by extreme anxiety. Practicing breathing exercises when you are not experiencing the distress of a panic or anxiety attack can help you get used to regulating your breathing in a calming way. Although it can be difficult to think about breathing exercises in the midst of a panic attack, even small attempts to regulate breathing can help.

As we discussed before, keeping track of stressors as well as remaining aware of the circumstances that cause a panic attack or exaggerated anxiety, can help you keep tabs on these episodes. If these episodes ever become more frequent or common occurrences in your life, seeking professional treatment for panic disorders and a diagnosis may be a good route to consider.

Medical professionals can speak with you about your experiences and determine if you have a condition that requires treatment, such as panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.

What Is Panic Disorder?

If you experience panic attacks frequently, you could be experiencing signs of a larger panic disorder. A panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. There are many types of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder and specific phobias.

When you have a panic disorder, you will experience feelings of worry, anxiety, and even fear. This condition is more severe than a panic attack because the condition begins to impact your daily activities. Typical activities, like going to the grocery store, might suddenly become difficult to manage and complete. Because people with panic disorders suffer from panic attacks, they can go to great lengths to avoid the locations and situations where they suffered an episode. Unfortunately, because panic attacks can happen at any time, locations like school or work may suddenly become places to be avoided.

The good news is that treatment is available for panic disorder! Handling panic attacks alone can be tough and ineffective. Many people can benefit from professional treatment. Panic disorder can be treated in a variety of ways.

Some people may take medication. Others may enter into therapy. In therapy, the therapist will help identify the thought patterns and ways of thinking that lead to panic. By identifying the patterns that lead an individual into panic, an individual can gradually learn to change these methods of thinking.

What Is an Anxiety Disorder and Can I Get Treatment?

anxiety disorderThere are many different kinds of anxiety disorders. Overall, anxiety is something that is unavoidable. Everyone experiences some kind of anxiety at some point in their lives. This is a natural part of life when you’re faced with things such as important decisions or pressing deadlines at work or school.

Anxiety disorders are more serious than usual everyday anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder, your anxiety and worry are not temporary feelings. Instead, they persist in your everyday life and are always present in some way. Exaggerated feelings of fear and worry can affect your daily actions and relationships with others.

Panic disorder is just one kind of anxiety disorder. Other kinds of anxiety disorders include: generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobia related disorders.

Treatment for anxiety disorders includes psychotherapy, also referred to as “talk therapy.” Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common form of psychotherapy. CBT focuses on identifying a patient’s negative thought patterns and teaching the patient effective ways to change the unhelpful thoughts and react with different, more supportive thoughts and behaviors.

Medication may also be used to treat anxiety disorders. Benzodiazepines, also referred to as “benzos”, are effective at quickly managing symptoms of anxiety, but over time, some patients may build up a tolerance to the drug and require higher doses to achieve the same effect. Additionally, some individuals may experience addiction when coming off of benzos. For this reason, benzos should be carefully monitored when prescribed by a doctor and patients should be appropriately weaned off the drug.

Alongside benzos, antidepressant medication can be helpful for those suffering from anxiety disorders. Antidepressants can help control your moods and stress levels, while also correcting any chemical imbalances in the brain. Like taking benzos, individuals taking prescribed antidepressants should adhere to the prescribed dosage and slowly be weaned off the medication. In younger children, teens, or adults, antidepressants may cause suicidal thoughts when the dosage is changed or the medication is first prescribed. Individuals who are on antidepressants should be monitored closely by both family and medical professionals.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I have an anxiety disorder or just anxiety?

Everyone experiences some manner of anxiety in everyday life. However, if you believe that your anxiety is constant and is impacting your ability to complete your tasks and live without interruption, consider seeking a medical opinion.

A disorder is severe enough to cause interruption to your life, whereas normal anxiety will arise and subside around events like a job interview or class presentation.

What does a panic attack feel like?

If you have a panic attack, you might start shaking, hyperventilating, sweating, and feel like you’re losing control of yourself. Many people believe that they are having a heart attack when they experience a panic attack. An episode can last around ten to fifteen minutes and leave you scared of the location where it occurred, along with increased anxiety of it happening again.

Panic attacks don’t need a trigger and can happen out of nowhere.

Can panic attacks be caused by anxiety?

Yes, panic attacks can be caused by extreme anxiety. This is one identifiable cause of panic attacks. Panic attacks can also occur when there is no obvious stressor or danger. In this case, the cause of panic attacks is unknown.