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Panic Attacks vs. Anxiety Attacks: What’s the Difference?

Panic Attacks vs. Anxiety Attacks: What’s the Difference?



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You might use these terms interchangeably, but they have slightly different meanings.

Heart pounding, hands shaking, a rush of heat all over your body. If you’ve ever experienced a surge in anxiety, we don’t need to tell you how disruptive — and scary — it can feel. But is it a panic attack, or an anxiety attack?

People often talk about panic attacks and anxiety attacks as if they’re the same thing. While they do have several symptoms in common, they’re actually separate conditions with a few notable differences.

For the most part, it boils down to intensity and duration of the attack. Here’s how to tell them apart, along with treatment options and resources.

We all worry from time to time. Yet panic and anxiety attacks are distinct from normal fear. They’re accompanied by emotional and physical symptoms that can make it difficult to get on with your day.

Panic attacks appear to come out of nowhere. They are considered to be more intense than anxiety attacks, and usually peak and subside within 10 minutes or so.

Panic attacks are recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). They’re linked with panic disorder, which impacts 2.7% of adults in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

On the other hand, anxiety attacks aren’t officially recognized by the DSM-5, so the definition of what constitutes an attack can be a bit vague.

Anxiety attacks are associated with a few conditions, including:

  • generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • trauma
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

In addition, specific triggers tend to be connected to anxiety attacks, such as:

  • work stress
  • family problems
  • driving
  • too much caffeine
  • alcohol or drug withdrawal
  • chronic pain
  • phobias
  • recalling past traumas

Roughly 3.1% of U.S. adults live with generalized anxiety disorder, and women tend to receive diagnoses more often than men.

With so much overlap, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a panic attack versus an anxiety attack. Here is a chart that may help:

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks differ in intensity and duration. It’s impossible to say which kind of attack is “worse,” since each person’s experience is different.

Panic attacks can be frightening because they happen without warning or an obvious trigger. The symptoms can be intense and disruptive, often accompanied with a feeling of being disconnected from reality.

Though they’re usually short in duration, it’s possible to get several panic attacks in a row, which can make the experience of panic feel longer.

Anxiety is a response to a known trigger, which may be less startling for some. The symptoms do tend to last longer than a panic attack, often building over hours or days. Symptoms of anxiety exist on a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe.

Depending on the kinds of symptoms you experience with anxiety or a panic attack, you might find different approaches to care helpful.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, may be an effective way to identify your anxiety triggers and learn how to manage them. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is one popular form of therapy that helps people manage and reduce symptoms related to anxiety and panic.

Some other forms of therapy that could help include:

  • exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP)
  • acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
  • somatic therapies, like somatic experiencing
  • panic-focused psychodynamic therapy
  • eye movement desensitization and preprocessing (EMDR)

Medications

A doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe medication for recurring panic attacks or anxiety, either with therapy or all by itself. A prescription could include:

  • anti-anxiety medications
  • antidepressants
  • benzodiazepines

It’s important to note that the FDA advises against long-term use of benzodiazepines, since they’re addictive and can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol, drugs, or other medications. Withdrawal symptoms can also be life-threatening, and long-term use could cause memory damage.

Lifestyle changes

A high-stress lifestyle, certain foods, and lack of sleep could all contribute to more frequent and intense anxiety or panic attacks. To support your treatment, consider incorporating one or more of the following lifestyle changes:

  • work to manage stressors as best you can
  • drink plenty of water
  • develop a support network
  • get regular, moderate exercise
  • sleep for at least 8 hours a night whenever possible
  • limit substances like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol
  • eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet
  • practice meditation, mindfulness, or yoga
  • join a support group for those with panic or anxiety attacks

If you’re experiencing a panic attack or anxiety attack right now, here are some popular ways to get relief.

Acknowledge the anxiety

Psychologist Carl Jung said, “What you resist, persists.” When anxiety rears its head, it can actually help to accept what’s taking place. Consider leaning a little into the discomfort — whether it’s buzzing in your legs, pounding in your chest, or even knots in your stomach — with curiosity.

It can also help to limit this exploration to manageable amounts of time, like 10 seconds, so you don’t get overwhelmed. As you explore, you can remind yourself that these feelings are temporary, and that they will pass.

Breathing techniques

When the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze mode) is engaged, your breathing naturally becomes more shallow. Connecting with your breath is one of the fastest ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” mode).

Find a comfortable place to lay down or take a comfortable seated position. Try a few of these techniques and repeat as many times as needed.

  • Box breathing. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4. Exhale for 4, hold for 4. Repeat 10 times.
  • Alternate nostril breathing. Bring your right thumb over your right nostril. Inhale and exhale through your left nostril. Repeat 8 times, then switch nostrils.
  • 4-7-8 breathing. Place the tip of your tongue behind your two front teeth. Do a closed-mouth inhale for 4, hold for 7, open-mouth exhale for 8.

Listen to calming music

In some research, the song “Weightless” by Marconi Union has been shown to reduce anxiety. Here’s the original song on YouTube, along with a 10-hour version for those really tough days.

Music you personally find calming could likely have the same anxiety-reducing effect.

Drink some tea

Research shows that chamomile tea can produce a mild calming effect thanks to apigenin, an antioxidant that binds to receptors in your brain. Other herbs known to reduce anxiety include:

  • black cohosh
  • chasteberry
  • lavender
  • passionflower
  • saffron

Take CBD oil

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a nonpsychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant, meaning that it won’t get you “high.” Research on CBD is growing and shows promising results for a range of physical and mental symptoms, including anxiety and insomnia.

If CBD oil is legal in your area, you might work with a “budtender” at a local dispensary to find out what dose is right for you. You may consider oil with no THC or a low ratio of THC to CBD, like 16:1 or 8:1.

Of course, it’s also important to check with your doctor before incorporating alternative treatments into your care routine — especially if you’re taking other medications.

You can find out everything you need to know about CBD here.

Try aromatherapy

There’s a reason spas are so relaxing. Research shows that inhaling lavender and chamomile essential oils can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, especially when combined with relaxing music.

Other essential oils you can try include:

  • bergamot
  • clary sage
  • grapefruit
  • ylang-ylang

Put a few drops of one scent into your diffuser, climb into a warm bath, and rub your temples for anxiety relief.

Essential oils are considered natural and safe, but they are potent. It’s key to purchase them from a reputable brand and avoid putting them directly on the skin without mixing them with a carrier oil, like coconut oil.

While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with your healthcare provider before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are treatable conditions and may include therapy, medications, lifestyle changes, and home treatments.

Now that you know the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack, reach out to your primary care doctor to discuss the best treatment options for you.

It can also help to know that you’re not alone. Here are some articles that explore what it’s like to live with panic attacks and anxiety:

  • Living with Panic Disorder: What It’s Like
  • Living with an Anxiety Disorder: Home Remedies for Relief
  • 10 Things People with Anxiety Need To Do Every Day

No matter how you’re feeling right now, know that these feelings of panic or anxiety will subside. With a few tools and tricks up your sleeve, you’ll be well-equipped to ride the waves.