What are panic attacks and anxiety attacks?
Both panic attacks and anxiety attacks cause you to feel intense, overwhelming emotions. While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they’re not exactly the same thing. Both panic and anxiety attacks activate your nervous system to send you into fight-or-flight mode, causing physical and emotional symptoms. Their differences lie in what causes the attack.
Difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks
Knowing the difference between panic and anxiety attacks can help you understand the symptoms before and during the episode.
A panic attack causes you to feel intense, sudden fear that can be overwhelming and immobilizing. They can happen for no reason, or a triggering event can cause one. During a panic attack, you may feel terrified or threatened.
Some people experience panic attacks as a part of panic disorder, and others only have them once or occasionally. Panic attacks usually only last a few minutes.
An anxiety attack occurs when stress, anxiety, and worry become overwhelming. They are brought on by persistent worry either over big events, like illness and death, or small, everyday things. The attack is the result of building anxiety over time that reaches a breaking point.
An anxiety attack is not so much an attack but just when anxiety comes to a head. They are episodes of intense worry, fear, and dread that trigger physical symptoms. They feel more predictable since they are the result of you worrying about something.
Symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety attacks
Panic and anxiety attacks have physical symptoms that can help you understand what is happening with your mind and body.
Symptoms of a panic attack
Panic attacks are usually sudden and reach their peak within a few minutes. While they are debilitating at the moment, people usually recover within less than an hour.
If you’re having a panic attack, you’ll likely experience four or more of the following symptoms as it happens:
- Chest pain
- Shaking or trembling
- The feeling of choking
- Shortness of breath
- Palpitations or racing heart rate
- Feeling of detachment
- Feeling of unreality
Researchers estimate that one-third of people will have a panic attack at some point in their lives. People who have had a panic attack once may likely have them again. Repeated panic attacks are a sign of a panic disorder.
Symptoms of an anxiety attack
Anxiety attacks are usually very frightening and peak in about ten minutes. Because of the intensity, you might even think that you are having a heart attack. Some symptoms of anxiety include:
- A wave of overwhelming panic
- The feeling of loss of control
- Heart palpitations and chest pain
- Dizziness and nausea
- Feeling like you can’t breathe or will pass out
You may even start to avoid certain situations because you are afraid that they will trigger an anxiety attack.
Causes of panic attacks and anxiety attacks
Panic and anxiety attacks can often be brought on by worry and fear, but in different ways.
Causes of a panic attack
A panic attack can be caused by a stressful event or nothing at all. They happen suddenly, usually without warning, and can even occur when you’re sleeping or relaxed.
Panic attacks can be brought on by certain conditions:
Your panic attack can be the result of your body trying to get you out of a situation that is perceived as dangerous. This response puts your body into fight-or-flight mode.
Causes of an anxiety attack
Anxiety is characterized by excessive worry or fear about a certain situation. Anxiety can cause you to have trouble rationalizing the situation and brings about feelings of dread and apprehension.
People who have anxiety attacks may also have an anxiety disorder, of which there are several.
Diagnosis for panic attacks and anxiety attacks
In the past, it was more difficult to diagnose panic and anxiety attacks. The symptoms that come with them are similar to those of many other illnesses, including heart disease, thyroid disorders, and breathing disorders. If you have an attack, you should see your doctor to make sure that the cause of these symptoms is not a serious medical condition.
If you find yourself having panic or anxiety attacks, or anxiety in general, a therapist or mental health professional can help to pinpoint these causes. They may also be able to help diagnose if you have a panic or anxiety disorder that triggers the attacks.
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Treatments for panic attacks and anxiety attacks
The most effective treatments for both panic and anxiety attacks is therapy, even if it is short-term. As these attacks can be brought on by fear, worry, stress, or a disorder, a professional can help you get to the root of the problem.
Here are some types of therapy to treat panic and anxiety attacks and disorders:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Exposure therapy for panic disorder
- Exposure therapy for panic disorder with agoraphobia (fear of outdoor or crowded areas)
You can also take preventative steps to avoid both kinds of attacks. Some helpful things to reduce panic and anxiety include:
- Managing your stress
- Regular exercise
- Getting enough sleep
- Practicing relaxation techniques
- Talking to friends and family
- Limiting stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine
- Practice breathing techniques
Your doctor can prescribe medications in extreme cases, but they do not solve the problem. In the case of anxiety attacks, medications may help relieve symptoms, but these kinds of medications can become habit-forming.
Medications for panic disorders are usually only given when managing your symptoms isn’t working. Your doctor may prescribe you antidepressants or benzodiazepines to work in conjunction with talk therapy.
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Michigan Health: "Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: 6 Things to Know."
Nationwide Children's: "Panic Attack or Anxiety Attack? What Is the Difference?"
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