Panic Attacks & Anxiety Attacks: Understanding Key Differences

Although many people use “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” interchangeably, and they do have some similarities, a panic attack and an anxiety attack are distinct experiences.

Do you need to seek treatment if you had a panic attack or anxiety attack?

If you experienced a panic attack or an anxiety attack, you need to seek treatment. A therapist with expertise in anxiety disorders can help you work through issues that may be contributing to your attacks, preventing them from occurring in the future.

Key similarities between panic attacks and anxiety attacks

Physical sensations: In both an anxiety attack and a panic attack you may experience chest pain, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, and a feeling of being choked, strangled, or smothered.

Emotional and mental symptoms: As with panic attacks, people experiencing anxiety attacks may experience a general sense of fear, irritability, being easily startled, worrying, struggling to concentrate, and struggling to get to sleep.

You’ve likely noticed it can be difficult to distinguish between the two when both kinds of attacks share many similarities. Now that you know what both experiences may involve, it’s time to learn about the major differences between each.

Four key differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks

  1. Physical symptoms
  2. Lack of identifiable cause for panic attacks
  3. Duration of the attack
  4. Intensity

Physical symptoms: anxiety attacks may include dizziness, muscle aches, and dry mouth. These symptoms are less likely to occur in a panic attack.
Lack of identifiable cause for panic attacks: The most significant difference between a panic attack and anxiety attack is the way in which they strike.

While individuals who experience panic attacks often struggle with anxiety on a regular basis, in the moments leading up to a panic attack there will almost never be an identifiable cause. A panic attack may strike without warning.

Anxiety attacks tend to develop when someone has been worrying for a relatively prolonged period of time.

Duration of the attack: The duration of each is also different. Panic attacks are often fast and intense. When a panic attack begins, symptoms will usually reach their peak about 10 minutes later and then gradually the symptoms abate. The symptoms of anxiety attacks tend to persist for much longer. In fact, some people experience anxiety attacks that last for months.

Sometimes, you may experience several panic attacks in quick succession. If the panic attacks come in rapid sequence, it can be difficult to determine if you experienced an anxiety attack rather than a panic attack simply because your experience lasted a long time.

Intensity: The degree to which symptoms affect a person’s ability to function in the moment may also differ. Because panic attacks are intense, when someone is experiencing one, completing basic tasks can be very difficult. They might also feel very strange and anxious throughout the rest of the day after an attack ends.

That’s not always the case with anxiety attacks. While there are instances when symptoms of an anxiety attack can be relatively severe, there are also plenty of instances when the symptoms of an anxiety attack are not disruptive enough to have a substantially noticeable impact on your ability to function.

Someone undergoing an anxiety attack may still be able to work, drive (although this is not recommended when symptoms are intense), hold relatively normal conversations, and generally behave normally. The anxiety attack makes it difficult to function normally, but it doesn’t make it impossible.

What you can do to stop or reduce anxiety attacks

You are able to exercise a degree of control over whether you have an anxiety attack.

Get help from a qualified therapist

Seek help from a qualified therapist. Often, you can make substantial progress in reducing anxiety and stopping anxiety attacks.

Limit caffeine or other stimulants

For example, consuming excessive caffeine or other stimulants can result in a state where you are more prone to anxiety or panic attacks than you otherwise would be. Try to limit your consumption of these substances if you frequently experience anxiety.

Better manage stress in your life

Stressful factors in your life may also contribute to an anxiety attack. If your job is stressing you out, difficult circumstances at work (or simply ruminating on those circumstances) can trigger an episode. So can other situations some people find stressful, like socializing or even driving under difficult road conditions.

You can’t always mitigate stress-inducing factors completely. Avoiding social situations entirely isn’t good for your mental health. Escaping a negative work environment is sometimes a smart move, but it’s not always possible or practical. This is yet another reason to work with a therapist.

Your therapist can help you identify the anxiety-causing factors you can change, and what you can do to better cope with those you lack the ability to change.

Seek help for past trauma

Anxiety attacks can be triggered by thinking about or being reminded of a trauma from your past. In many cases, people who struggle with anxiety attacks aren’t fully aware of the relationship between a past trauma and their current condition. A qualified therapist can help you uncover these issues and work through them.

Substance abuse and medications: other factors you can control

Drugs or alcohol can contribute to anxiety attacks, and reducing or stopping your use of drugs or alcohol consumption can contribute to avoiding future anxiety attacks.

Certain medications may make you more prone to anxiety attacks. If you are taking prescription medication, tell your physician about the anxiety attacks. You should never cease taking medication until you’ve discussed the topic with your doctor!

Practical steps you can take to stop or reduce panic attacks

Since panic attacks erupt without warning, and without any immediately identifiable cause, it usually won’t be obvious to you in the moment why you are suddenly having this experience. Without a clear cause, it can be more difficult to know what steps you need to take to prevent the next panic attack.

Don’t worry. That by no means indicates you can’t stop panic attacks from happening. As part of getting professional treatment, there are specific steps you can take to help reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and noticing what you’re experiencing without judgment. People often achieve this through meditation. They may sit with their eyes closed, focusing on their breath to anchor themselves to the current moment. That said, there are plenty of other ways to practice mindfulness, such as mindful walking or eating. The goal is to notice your experiences without trying to change them or escape from them.

This might seem counterintuitive when your experiences are unpleasant. The last thing you want to do during an attack is focus on your feelings!

That’s an understandable reaction. However, mindfulness has been shown to ease anxiety because stressing about anxiety, panic, or related unpleasant feelings can exacerbate them. Learning to ground yourself in the moment without judging it as positive or negative helps you cope with these difficult experiences. Practicing mindfulness regularly can also yield long-term changes that reduce the frequency of anxiety and panic attacks or eliminate them altogether.

Practice breathing exercises

By now you’ve likely realized there is a clear and undeniable connection between your physical body and your mental wellness when you’re experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. While it is true that your mental and emotional state can cause the physical symptoms, it’s also true that physical symptoms can exacerbate your mental experiences. The result is an unpleasant cycle where your symptoms get increasingly more frequent and more severe.

Deep breathing exercises can help you restore a balance between your physical and emotional states. To get some degree of control over your anxiety during unpleasant episodes, focus on breathing in slowly through your nose, breathing into the abdomen (avoid shallow chest breathing), and exhaling slowly through your mouth.

Breathing exercises may be particularly useful for those who struggle with anxiety attacks. Panic attacks strike suddenly and without warning, and you may not notice what is happening until your symptoms become too intense. On the other hand, because anxiety attacks are prolonged experiences that develop slowly, if you notice the onset of an anxiety attack, you may be able to prevent the attack or limit its severity by practicing a breathing exercise.

Get plenty of exercise and sleep

Exercise and sleep likely can’t help in the moment when you’re experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. They can, however, help to limit the amount of stress in your life. This makes you less likely to experience attacks in the future.

When a panic attack starts, coping skills are important

When experiencing a panic attack, there are things you can do to help calm you down in the moment.

When you next feel a sudden or acute panic attack, try reminding yourself that you are not actually in danger, but just experiencing temporary anxiety. Remind yourself that your symptoms will pass soon. Try to acknowledge your feelings instead of distracting yourself or trying to fight your symptoms. Get your breathing under control with deep, long, controlled breaths. Tense each muscle in your body one at a time, and then relax them, until your whole body is feeling more relaxed. Stay in the present moment and try not to worry about the “what if’s”.

Coping strategies are important, but prevention is as important, if not more important, than coping strategies. You don’t want to have another panic attack. That’s where therapy comes into play.

Therapy for panic attacks helps you move from coping to prevention

Behavioral changes and coping skills are important. Your therapist will help you make changes and learn techniques that can reduce the frequency of panic attacks, and help you manage better when attacks occur.

Therapy can also help you get to the sources powering your attacks. People experience anxiety and panic attacks for many different reasons. By addressing the sources of your anxiety, you can work towards preventing attacks.

Your therapist can build a therapy program that can help you make long-term sustainable change. In some cases, your therapist can work with your physician if you require medication to manage your symptoms.

Does therapy work?

Fortunately, anxiety disorders typically respond well to treatment. Our clients report major progress in therapy and often are able to get full control over their anxiety. In therapy you will work towards understanding what contributes to your anxiety, as well as learning coping strategies and techniques for preventing and dealing with a panic attack.

In New York we live in a stressful environment. We have stress-inducing jobs and relationships. And, these are stressful times. Your therapist will help you identify and address the many different factors affecting you and help you on the road to overcoming anxiety. Whether you’re experiencing anxiety attacks or panic attacks (or you’re not sure yet), get started on the road to recovery by scheduling an initial consultation with Therapy24x7.

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