Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks: What’s the Difference and How to Cope?

Anxiety and panic attacks can often feel the same, yet there are distinct differences between them. Anxiety attacks typically occur when a person is faced with a stressful situation, such as a job interview or public speaking event. Panic attacks, on the other hand, can be unexpected and unpredictable, with symptoms that can range from rapid heartbeat and chest pain to difficulty breathing and dizziness. Learning the differences between anxiety and panic attacks can help you better understand your symptoms and how to cope with them. This article will explore the differences between anxiety and panic attacks, their common symptoms, and how to manage each type of attack.

Definition of anxiety attacks and panic attacks

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are both examples of what is called a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). A GAD is a type of disorder that causes people to have excessive and uncontrollable worry, often without an identifiable reason. People with anxiety attacks and panic attacks often feel as though they are in a constant state of worry and are unable to relax. Anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be triggered by a wide variety of circumstances, although there are some common triggers. When you experience one of these triggers, your body is triggered by the stress hormones released, which causes your heart rate to increase, your breathing to quicken, and your blood pressure to rise. These are automatic responses that are meant to prepare the body for a potential threat.

Differences between anxiety and panic attacks

People often confuse anxiety and panic attacks, but there are some key differences between the two. Panic attacks are short-term, often lasting for only a few minutes and sometimes up to an hour. However, an individual may feel a state of heightened anxiety for hours or even days.  Furthermore, anxiety attacks are often situational and are triggered by a specific stressful event, such as a job interview or public speaking event. Panic attacks, on the other hand, are unexpected and often occur without warning. This can make them difficult to prepare for and understand. It’s estimated that between 1.5 and 3% of the American population experiences panic attacks and panic disorder. People who suffer from panic disorders are often diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as well.

Common symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be difficult to differentiate based on symptoms alone, as they can include many of the same symptoms. However, certain symptoms are more common to certain types of attacks. Anxiety attacks are often characterized by physical symptoms, such as racing heart, dizziness, shortness of breath, trembling, lightheadedness, nausea, and sweating. In contrast, panic attacks are more likely to include psychological symptoms, such as feelings of impending doom, feelings of being out of control, feelings of being trapped, or feelings of being unable to escape. In addition, panic attacks can be accompanied by a wide range of other symptoms, including chest pain, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, dizziness, hot flashes, shaking, and more.

Causes of anxiety and panic attacks

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks have many potential causes, but there are some that are more common than others. Stressful life events, such as a death in the family or a divorce, financial troubles, or job loss can trigger an anxiety attack or panic attack. Other common causes of anxiety and panic attacks include medical conditions and biological factors, genetics, and mental health conditions. Medical conditions that can cause anxiety and panic attacks include heart disorders, respiratory disorders, thyroid disorders, and diabetes, among others. Genetics can also play a role in anxiety attacks, as well as panic attacks. If a close family member has had anxiety or panic attacks, you are more likely to develop them as well. In addition, if you have a mental health condition such as an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder, you are also more likely to develop anxiety and panic attacks.

Anxiety and panic attack coping strategies

The most important thing you can do when you are experiencing an anxiety attack is to stay calm. This may sound like an obvious statement, but the best way to get through an anxiety attack is by staying calm and focusing on your breathing. Anxiety attacks occur when your body is flooded with stress hormones and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Deep breathing is one of the best anxiety attack coping strategies because it is a natural way to calm the body down and reverse the effects of those hormones. Focus on taking slow and deep breaths, visualizing the air entering and leaving your body. Some people also feel relief by looking around their environment and naming five things they can see, smell, and hear. This can help bring your heart rate back to normal and slow your breathing back to a normal rhythm. 

Another option is to talk to a friend or loved one, preferably someone you are comfortable with and who understands what you are going through. Talking to someone can help you calm down and feel less alone during an anxiety attack. 

Finally, exercise has been shown to be one of the best ways to combat stress, and can help prevent an anxiety or panic attack in the first place. If you have time, consider going for a walk or doing some yoga to help your body release stress.

Treatment options for anxiety and panic attacks

There are many effective treatments for anxiety attacks and panic attacks. In fact, treatment for an anxiety attack is often as simple as learning how to manage your stress levels and practicing some relaxation techniques. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also be a helpful treatment option for anxiety attacks. This type of therapy focuses on changing the way you think and react to situations that trigger anxiety. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga can also be helpful in managing anxiety attacks. In addition, medication may be prescribed as a treatment for anxiety attacks, especially if you have panic attacks as well. 

When to seek professional help for anxiety and panic attacks

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be debilitating and difficult to manage, especially when they are frequent or severe. If you are experiencing anxiety attacks or panic attacks, it is important to speak with a medical professional to learn more about treatment options and to get help managing anxiety attacks. There are many effective treatments for anxiety attacks and panic attacks, and it is important to get help as soon as possible.