Anatomy of a Freak Out: The Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack

girl sitting at a window managing an anxiety attack or a panic attack

Remember when you had to give that big presentation or take that exam? If you’re like most, you probably worried that you were going to freeze up or forget some important facts. If so, then you were experiencing a bit of anxiety. In such circumstances, a little anxiety is a good thing. It encourages you to be better prepared or to practice a bit more. In other words, anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing.

However, when anxiety starts becoming too frequent or too severe, it can begin to interfere with your quality of life. In fact, it can actually cause you to perform poorly during a presentation or exam. In some cases, these feelings of worry and anxiety become rather intense, causing us to pay more attention to them instead of the task at hand. Often, we refer to these instances as “attacks.”

These episodes of stress and worry are not uncommon. Some people describe these events as “anxiety attacks,” while others call them “panic attacks.” But what exactly do these labels mean? Are they the same thing? Or do anxiety attacks and panic attacks truly represent uniquely different phenomena? These are important questions. And by knowing a little more about each, you can better understand what you might be experiencing.

Anxiety Attacks: More Common Than You Think

In the U.S., over 40 million people have actual anxiety disorders. However, anxiety disorders are not anxiety attacks. In fact, anyone can have an anxiety attack depending on the circumstances. Whenever we begin to worry about a future event that may cause an adverse outcome, anxiety attacks can occur. These create a gradual feeling of uneasiness that can cause worry, distress, and restlessness.

You can likely recall a specific instance when you gradually felt incredibly anxious and worried. Your heart may have been racing, and you may have felt nauseated. You might have even been short of breath or dizzy. That is an anxiety attack. Anxiety attacks, unlike anxiety disorders, are intermittent and infrequent. They also don’t interfere with your ability to manage your life. They are just instances of more acute worry that grab your attention.

Panic Attacks: Anxiety Attacks on Steroids

While anxiety attacks create a gradual increase in anxiety and worry, panic attacks are more intense and sudden. In fact, panic attacks typically develop rather abruptly with a fear that some harm or danger is imminent. As a result, the feelings of anxiety are more profound, and physical symptoms are often more noticeable. Symptoms may include not only a racing heart but also difficulty in breathing, headaches, chest pain, and even extreme dizziness.

Interestingly, panic attacks may be triggered by a situation, or they may occur unexpectedly. Like anxiety attacks, an event that feeds worry can certainly trigger panic attacks. However, some people seem to have them out of the blue as well.  Worth noting is that anxiety attacks and panic attacks occur in different parts of the brain. Anxiety attacks originate in the frontal part of our brains where we plan and anticipate events. In contrast, panic attacks originate in the deeper parts of our brains, the areas associated with our fight-or-flight response. This likely accounts for many of the differences between anxiety attacks and panic attacks.

The Bottom Line: Knowing Whether You’re Having an Anxiety Attack or Panic Attack

While making the distinction between anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be hard, there are a few rules that can help. You can use the following criteria to determine which one you might be experiencing:

Onset of Attack:

Anxiety attacks develop gradually usually over hours. In contrast, panic attacks develop more suddenly, within seconds to a few minutes, whether triggered by something or not.

Intensity of Attack:

While anxiety attacks are bothersome and create significant worry, they tend to be less intense than panic attacks. Panic attacks, on the other hand, quickly get your attention.

Impending Threat:

Both anxiety attacks and panic attacks are associated with fear and some threat. However, the threat with panic attacks is more profound, with a sense that one is losing control or even about to die.

Duration of Attack:

Though less definitive in distinguishing between anxiety and panic attacks, an attack’s duration may help you determine between the two. Panic attacks usually last 10–20 minutes and end fairly quickly. In contrast, most anxiety attacks last longer and fade away over a longer period of time.

Managing Your Attacks

If you are having anxiety attacks or panic attacks, several strategies can help. In addition to addressing your worries through preparation, you can also adopt various stress management techniques. These techniques may include:

  • Relaxation therapies, meditation, yoga or other mindfulness exercises
  • Eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly can help reduce their occurrence
  • Having an awareness of your attacks

While these measures can be effective for many, some will require additional support. If you are concerned that your anxiety attacks may represent an actual anxiety disorder, then seeking professional advice is crucial and necessary. Likewise, if your panic attacks occur often, you may have a condition known as panic disorder. In this instance, seeking advice from a health care professional is similarly recommended. Regardless, with a better grasp of the differences between anxiety attacks and panic attacks, you can better determine what you need.

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Dawna is a mom of two young kids, puppy lover, ice cream lover, chocolate lover, and lover of any ice cream with chunks of chocolate in it. She is the author of seven books, a business owner, certified health coach, motivational speaker, and creator of the 5-Day Detox and the 14-Day Clean-Eating Program. Dawna appears regularly on local and national television. She has appeared on the Today show, Martha, MSNBC, HSN, and morning news programs on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox. Dawna is a highly sought-after speaker and has done speaking engagements for Chobani, Disney, American Heart Association, Mass Mutual, Wharton Business School, Women’s Entertainment Television, PGA Tour, Super Bowl Leadership Forum, Susan G. Komen, and many more.

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