When I had my first anxiety attack in high school, I was perplexed. Not having “anxiety attacks” in my vocabulary, but knowing what panic attacks were, it felt inaccurate to call it a panic attack. Upon experiencing more anxiety attacks in college and doing research, I was eventually able to pinpoint them as anxiety attacks and better understand my triggers (overwhelming stress and low blood sugar).
People often use the terms panic attack and anxiety attack interchangeably. However, they are not the same. Having different causes, intensities, durations and diagnoses, these types of attacks have important distinctions.
Panic attacks often come on suddenly, and can occur with or without an identifiable trigger. Whereas, anxiety attacks develop gradually after a period of excessive worry and is in response to a perceived stressor or threat.
Signs and Symptoms
When a panic attack onsets, an individual may have:
- A rapid heart rate
- Chest pain
- Hot flashes or chill
- Tingling or numbness
- Shortness of breath
- Stomach pain
- A feeling of having a loss of control
- A sudden fear that they will die
- A feeling of detachment from themselves and/or their surroundings
When an anxiety attack occurs, a person may have:
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disturbances
- A sense of impending danger
It is important to note that with anxiety attacks, the signs and symptoms tend to be less intense in comparison to panic attacks. Due to the severity of panic attacks, people often feel stressed, worried, detached or unusual for the remainder of their day.
Panic attacks tend to last for 5 to 10 minutes, whereas anxiety attacks can last over a few minutes to hours. Although panic attacks are shorter in duration, they can occur in a row, making them feel much longer.
Because an anxiety attack is not a clinically defined condition in the DSM-5, mental health professionals cannot diagnose it. They can however recognize symptoms and signs of anxiety and diagnose an anxiety disorder. In contrast, mental health professionals can diagnose panic disorder, which is a disorder in which an individual experiences recurring and unexpected panic attacks, and either develops a maladaptive behavior in response (e.g. avoiding unfamiliar situations) or has concerns about additional panic attacks and their consequences.
Having similar symptoms, it is understandably difficult to distinguish between panic attacks and anxiety attacks. By looking further into important considerations such as causes and manifestations, it becomes easier to discern between the two. Regardless, self-help strategies (e.g. practicing mindfulness), therapy, medication and/or lifestyle changes (e.g. eating a balanced diet and regularly exercising) can benefit and alleviate both anxiety attacks and panic attacks.
Staff Blogger: Jennifer Wendell
Jennifer Wendell (she/they) is a recent cum laude graduate from University of Delaware with dual degrees in Human Services- Clinical Concentration and Sociology. She is currently the Community Educator I at The Mental Health Association in Delaware. She is passionate about advocacy, social issues and human rights, especially for the LGBTQ+ community and disability community. In her free time, she likes to be creative, go on adventures and explore nature.