What’s the Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Anxiety Attack?
What is an anxiety attack?
The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition” (DSM-5) does not mention anxiety attacks, but it does define anxiety as a feature of a number of common psychiatric disorders.
This includes the following conditions:
generalized anxiety disorder
separation anxiety disorder
agoraphobia without history of panic disorder
post-traumatic stress disorder
social anxiety disorder
Anxiety is usually related to the anticipation of a stressful situation, experience, or event. It may come on gradually.
Symptoms of anxiety include:
The lack of diagnostic recognition of anxiety attacks means that the signs and symptoms are open to interpretation.
That is, a person may describe having an “anxiety attack” and have symptoms that another person has never experienced despite indicating that they, too, have had an “anxiety attack.”
What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks come on suddenly and involve intense and often overwhelming fear. They’re accompanied by very challenging physical symptoms, like a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea.
DSM-5 recognizes panic attacks and categorizes them as unexpected or expected.
Unexpected panic attacks occur without an obvious cause. Expected panic attacks are cued by external stressors, like phobias.
Panic attacks can happen to anyone, but having more than one may be a sign of panic disorder, a mental health condition characterized by sudden and repeated panic attacks.
Symptoms of panic attack vs. anxiety attack
Panic and anxiety attacks may feel similar, and they share a lot of emotional and physical symptoms.
You can experience both an anxiety and a panic attack at the same time.
For instance, you might experience anxiety while worrying about a potentially stressful situation, like an important presentation at work. When the situation arrives, anxiety may culminate in a panic attack.
A panic attack or anxiety attack can both cause physical and emotional symptoms, including:
apprehension and worry
fear of dying or losing control
a sense of detachment from the world (derealization) or oneself (depersonalization)
heart palpitations or an accelerated heart rate
shortness of breath
tightness in the throat or feeling like you’re choking
chills or hot flashes
trembling or shaking
numbness or tingling (paresthesia)
nausea, abdominal pain, or upset stomach
feeling faint or dizzy
It may be difficult to know whether what you’re experiencing is anxiety or a panic attack. Keep in mind the following:
The cause: Anxiety is typically related to something that’s perceived as stressful or threatening. Panic attacks aren’t always cued by stressors. They most often occur out of the blue.
The level of distress: Anxiety can be mild, moderate, or severe. For example, anxiety may be happening in the back of your mind as you go about your day-to-day activities. Panic attacks, on the other hand, mostly involve severe, disruptive symptoms.
Fight-or-flight: During a panic attack, the body’s autonomous fight-or-flight response takes over. Physical symptoms are often more intense than symptoms of anxiety.
Speed of onset: While anxiety can build gradually, panic attacks usually come on abruptly.
Effect: Panic attacks typically trigger worries or fears related to having another attack. This may have an effect on your behavior, leading you to avoid places or situations where you think you might be at risk of a panic attack.
Causes of panic attack vs. anxiety attack
Unexpected panic attacks have no clear external triggers. Expected panic attacks and anxiety can be triggered by similar things. Some common triggers include:
a stressful job
phobias, like agoraphobia (fear of crowded or open spaces), claustrophobia (fear of small spaces), and acrophobia (fear of heights)
reminders or memories of traumatic experiences
chronic illnesses, like heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, or asthma
withdrawal from drugs or alcohol
medication and supplements
Risk factors for panic attack vs. anxiety attack
Anxiety and panic attacks have similar risk factors. These include
experiencing trauma or witnessing traumatic events, either as a child or as an adult
experiencing a stressful life event, like the death of a loved one or a divorce
experiencing ongoing stress and worries, like work responsibilities, conflict in your family, or financial woes
living with a chronic health condition or life threatening illness
having an anxious personality
having another mental health condition like depression
having close family members who also have anxiety or panic disorders
using drugs or consuming alcohol
People who experience anxiety are at an increased risk of experiencing panic attacks. But having anxiety does not mean you will experience a panic attack.
Diagnosing panic attack vs. anxiety attack
Doctors can’t diagnose anxiety attacks, but they can diagnose:
A doctor will ask you about your symptoms and conduct tests to rule out other health conditions with similar symptoms, like heart disease or thyroid problems.
To get a diagnosis, a doctor may conduct:
a physical exam
a heart test, like an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG)
a psychological evaluation or questionnaire
Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are not the same. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, only panic attacks are identified in the DSM-5.
Anxiety and panic attacks have similar symptoms, causes, and risk factors. But panic attacks tend to be more intense and are often accompanied by more severe physical symptoms.
You should contact a healthcare professional if anxiety- or panic-related symptoms are affecting your everyday life.