Difference Between Panic and Anxiety Attacks You Need to Know About

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There is a considerable difference between panic and anxiety attacks, even if they seem similar on the surface.

Both forms of discomfort can present in relatively similar ways, but their differences lie in how they manifest.

In this guide, we’ll review how panic and anxiety attacks are different and how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines them.

What Is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders?

The DSM-5, also known as the fifth edition of the DSM, is a complete text featuring many elements of mental disorders.

Mental health professionals can find multiple definitions of various mental disorders and their diagnostic criteria.

It is filled with pertinent information that can assist a professional psychologist or psychiatrist form a treatment plan for their patients.

With that said, we’ll be using the DSM-5 as a relative guide.

However, you mustn’t diagnose yourself as someone potentially suffering from anxiety or panic attacks.

Instead, use this information to determine whether you should seek professional counsel to receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

What Is An Anxiety Attack?

In the DSM-5, there isn’t a strict definition for anxiety attacks themselves. However, there is a rather long section about anxiety disorders and where anxiety attacks can stem from.

Anxiety attacks are a symptom of multiple mental disorders, ranging from separation anxiety to social anxiety.

An individual who experiences an anxiety attack typically engages their fight or flight reflex, also known as the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

When your SNS is engaged, you may feel like you’re in immediate danger and a need for escape.

With that said, if you’re suffering from an anxiety attack, your SNS may or may not be engaged in the presence of an actual threat.

There’s a common myth that to be experiencing an anxiety attack, an external stimulus must trigger it. This is not always the case.

Many individuals experience anxiety attacks due to either external or internal stimuli. It’s also important to note that general feelings of unease do not qualify as anxiety attacks.

Like most mental disorders in the DSM-5, anxiety can only be attributed to an individual in specific instances.

These instances include:

  • Persistent and excessive worry or stress
  • Repeated complaints of physical symptoms
  • The anxiety causes “clinically significant distress or impairment in important areas of functioning”
  • Diagnosticians cannot better explain the anxiety by a different mental disorder

Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety attacks include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Excessive worry about untoward events
  • Avoidance in fear of sparking an anxiety attack
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Shortness of breath

What Is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks are another symptom stemming from different mental disorders than can affect your daily life.

Much like anxiety disorders, panic disorders are also defined in the DSM-5 for psychoanalysts to review. Interestingly, panic attacks can happen comorbidly (simultaneously) as anxiety disorders.

For example, an individual with social anxiety may experience a panic attack when faced with a public speaking opportunity.

Another example is people with agoraphobia (the fear of leaving their home). Individuals with agoraphobia often experience panic attacks when leaving the space they have deemed safe.

Panic attacks are often categorized as a heightened physiological reaction to a stressful situation or external stimuli.

In anxiety, panic attacks are usually defined as a fear response, similar to anxiety attacks.

However, these are not limited to only anxiety disorders, as they can happen alongside other mental disorders.

Compared to anxiety attacks, the symptoms of panic attacks are known to appear suddenly, like a sharp pain.

In contrast, anxiety can gradually build over a short or extended period.

You’ll find panic attacks also come with more immediate physiological symptoms, causing sharp discomfort.

Some of the most common symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Depersonalization and derealization
  • Chest pain
  • Shaking and trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting
what is the difference between panic and anxiety attacks

Difference Between Panic and Anxiety Attacks

With a good idea of the general definition of anxiety and panic attacks, let’s jump into their considerable differences.

Many people lump them into the same category, but they are clinically different. Not only do they present with different symptoms and symptom intensities, but very different stimuli can spark them.

Symptoms of Panic and Anxiety Attacks

As a refresher, let’s look at a chart that compares the most common symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks.

Remember, immediate, sharp physiological reactions often categorize panic attacks. Anxiety attacks are different in that they build gradually over a while.

Panic Attack SymptomsAnxiety Attack Symptoms
Hot flashesSense of detachmentSense of derealizationShaking or tremblingSudden, sharp painsChest painSymptoms last for shortened periodsHeart palpitationsAbdominal distressExcessive sweatingChoking feelingsFainting and lightheadednessIrritabilityDifficulty sleepingRestlessnessExtended muscle tensionIncreased fatigueSymptom intensity gradually buildsSymptoms could last for months

Aside from the fact that the symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks are quite different, there are a few specific ones to consider.

Three of the most prominent signs that can help identify panic from anxiety attacks include:

  • The fear of losing control or dying
  • Depersonalization (detachment from the self)
  • Derealization (detachment from the world)

These three symptoms are known only to present themselves when an individual is experiencing a panic attack or panic disorder.

However, it is important to note you can have a panic attack without being diagnosed with a panic disorder.

Symptom Severity

Another considerable difference between panic and anxiety attacks is how the symptoms present themselves.

As discussed, panic attacks often occur in sharp, short bursts, with symptoms lasting a few to several minutes.

On the other hand, anxiety attacks can gradually build over months and often start as a general uneasiness.

If you break it down into simple terms, anxiety attacks are often “less intense” than panic attacks.

Those experiencing anxiety attacks have a general feeling of uneasiness or fear.

With a panic attack, you have the possibility of detaching from yourself and the world.

Individuals likely to experience panic attacks will have their symptoms reach their peak within ten minutes.

After ten minutes, the physiological symptoms will begin to dissipate.

That said, there isn’t a specific science to determine how long an attack could last, as some last minutes and others up to an hour.

Fear-Causing Stimuli

One of the largest issues that can make anxiety challenging to live with is how it gradually builds over time.

Additionally, it could occur due to a real or perceived threat (external or internal stimuli).

Panic attacks mostly happen as a result of external stimuli causing the danger. For example, an individual may have a panic attack because they fear getting behind the wheel of a car.

With anxiety, this sense of fear could occur without a specific trigger.

Sometimes, individuals simply feel generally uneasy or may feel like something is wrong or “off.”

In most instances, anxiety reaches its peak when individuals experience excessive amounts of stress.

This stress can gradually build over some time to where it becomes overwhelming.

As a result, an anxiety attack may be induced for the brain and body to release said stress.

Avoidant Behaviors

It’s important to note that individuals dealing with panic or anxiety disorders may present some of the same avoidant behaviors.

However, panic attacks have a higher correlation with avoiding specific situations. As mentioned, panic attacks often occur due to actual external stimuli.

If an individual is triggered by an event, thing, or place, they are more likely to avoid that thing, event, or place in the future.

After an attack, it is quite common to develop a fear of the stimuli that triggered it.

Additionally, it can make you avoid specific areas where you might have a panic attack in public.

How Are Panic and Anxiety Attacks Treated?

Although these two symptoms of mental disorders have an assortment of differences, they are treated relatively the same.

Regardless, you must take the time to seek medical counsel if you are concerned about your mental health.

With the assistance of a psychologist or psychiatrist, you can work towards bettering your mental wellbeing.

There are a few common treatments you might experience when working on anxiety or panic disorders, including:

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is often the most popular option for individuals working with anxiety and panic-related disorders.

You’ll work with your psychotherapist to determine any past or current issues that could be triggering your discomfort.

You’ll also talk through various situations to help develop better coping mechanisms for future attacks.

Psychotherapy can be constructive for individuals who feel helpless when having panic or anxiety attacks.

Licensed professionals can help you develop a solid plan to work through future attacks.

Also, you may learn valuable skills in many other areas of mental wellness.

Medications

Medication is also a highly common treatment avenue for individuals with anxiety and panic attacks.

With that said, you’re more likely to be prescribed medication if you’re experiencing severe symptoms.

Depending on your treatment plan, you may only need medication for the duration of your psychotherapy.

Also, depending on your condition, there are many different types of prescriptions you could receive from a psychiatrist.

With the help of a doctor, you can find the ideal medication that meets your needs.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a beneficial process for working through anxiety and panic.

You’ll learn considerable coping mechanisms, such as reducing fear, reasoning, and communicating better with yourself.

You might also find it can assist with reducing feelings of anxiety and managing negative emotions.

Grounding, meditation, and stepping into more powerful emotions are a few examples of NLP techniques.

Aside from seeking mental health assistance, there are many resources you can use to begin using NLP techniques for panic and anxiety attacks.

A few of the best books on the matter include:

Know the Difference, but Never Self-Diagnose

Understanding the difference between panic and anxiety attacks can help you seek a proper diagnosis.

If you’re concerned that you’re experiencing either, you must speak to a mental health professional.

You will receive a clear diagnosis and a treatment plan to help you live a more fulfilled life.

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