People often use anxiety attacks and panic attacks interchangeably though they are not the same. While they have many similarities, they also have distinct differences. Both conditions involve feelings of fear and discomfort, but they differ in terms of onset, duration, and severity of symptoms. Understanding the differences between anxiety and panic attacks can help individuals better identify their experiences and seek appropriate help. Here’s how they differ.
Onset and duration
Panic attacks are characterized by the sudden onset of intense, often overwhelming fear in the absence of any actual danger or threat or other triggers. They often last for minutes. They can happen to anyone but having more than one may be a sign of a panic disorder. A panic disorder is a mental health condition characterized by sudden and repeated panic attacks.
Anxiety is usually related to the anticipation of a stressful situation. It comes on gradually and can last for months. Anxiety attacks are generally associated with people who have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or a related anxiety disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not mention anxiety attacks but it does define anxiety as a feature of common psychiatric disorders.
Panic and anxiety attacks share a lot of emotional and physical symptoms.
Symptoms of a panic attack
Panic attacks are sudden, very intense and last for minutes
- Chest pain
- Excessive sweating
- Feeling of choking
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
- Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
- Hot flashes
- Nausea or abdominal stress
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Feelings of unreality (derealization)
- Feeling detached from oneself (depersonalization)
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
Symptoms of an anxiety attack
The symptoms of an anxiety attack are less intense and last longer sometimes going for months.
- Disturbed sleep
- Increased heart rate
- Increased startle response
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty concentrating
Treatment and coping strategies
For both panic and anxiety attacks, treatment can include therapy and medication to manage the symptoms. With anxiety disorders, there could be additional coping strategies to manage your triggers.
Tips for helping someone going through a panic attack
Stay calm: Panic attacks can be very scary for the person experiencing them. It’s important to remain calm and reassuring so you can help them feel safe and supported.
Breathing exercise: Panic attacks can cause rapid, shallow breathing, which can worsen symptoms. Encourage the person to take slow, deep breaths to help them relax and regulate their breathing. Do it along with them so that they follow your movements.
Validate their feelings: Let the person know that you understand they are feeling scared or overwhelmed. Reassure them that panic attacks are a common experience and that they are not alone.
Offer to help: Once the initial high of it passes, ask the person if there is anything you can do to help them feel more comfortable. Do they need water? To move to a quiet place? Medical attention?
Avoid judgment or criticism: It’s important to avoid making judgments or criticizing the person for their panic attack. They have no control over them.
Stay: Panic attacks can be very isolating and it can be helpful to have someone there providing comfort. Stay with the person until they feel better, or until they feel comfortable being alone.
Medical help: If the person has ongoing panic attacks, encourage them to seek professional help from a mental health provider.
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