If you’ve ever experienced an anxiety attack or a panic attack, you’re not alone. The overwhelming feeling of stress or fear can cause these attacks to happen. In this Ladder article, Mindpath Health’s Rashmi Parmar, MD discusses the difference between anxiety attacks and panic attacks, symptoms, and how to cope when experiencing them.

Anxiety attack vs panic attack: What’s the difference?_Rashmi Parmar, MD_Mindpath Health

‘Panic attack’ is the official term; ‘anxiety attack’ is informal

“A panic attack is a diagnosable mental health issue observed within disorders like panic disorder and social anxiety disorder. An anxiety attack is a term non-professionals use to describe increased anxiety symptoms,” says Eric Patterson, LPC. “Mental health clinicians should only use the terms panic attack and anxiety.”

If someone is feeling intense fear, worry, and a host of physical symptoms such as flushed skin, dizziness, difficulty breathing, sweating, and tightness in the chest, it could be a panic attack. Panic attacks are typically short-lived, intense, and have a clear beginning and end. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, is a term many people use when they are experiencing a period of higher stress and anxiety. These feelings will be less intense and generally last longer than a panic attack.

Panic attacks are sudden and short-lived. Anxiety attacks are gradual and long-lasting

Dr. Rashmi Parmar, a psychiatrist at Mindpath Health, says that although they seem similar, they are notably different.

“A panic attack is unique in the way it begins. It can occur unexpectedly and take you by surprise. Panic attacks that take you by surprise may be untriggered, but some panic attacks have a trigger,” says Dr. Parmar. “For example, when someone with a snake phobia encounters a snake, the snake is the trigger that causes them to have a panic attack.”

“An anxiety attack occurs due to preexisting worries or anxiety triggers and is not entirely unexpected. For example, consider that a person long afraid of the dark gets stuck in an elevator at night. How will they react to this trigger? They are highly likely to have an anxiety attack as a result.”

Their intensity varies

There’s a stark difference in the intensity of symptoms in both of these attacks. A panic attack is usually much more intense in severity. It is severe enough to cause significant disruption the moment it strikes. A person will usually be unable to function or carry on a task while experiencing a panic attack. It warrants immediate measures, like removing yourself from an uncomfortable situation or engaging in relaxation and breathing techniques.

The above measures can help with anxiety attacks as well. A person may function relatively better during the mild phases of a long anxiety attack. Even if they don’t take any action to deal with it, they can go about their day.

The mental effects are easy to distinguish.

“You are more likely to encounter feelings of detachment from yourself or the environment during a panic attack,” says Dr. Parmar. “These are called depersonalization (former) and derealization (latter). And they are uncommon during an anxiety attack.”

Possible symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • An overwhelming feeling of dread
  • An intense fear that something terrible is happening
  • Experiencing tunnel vision
  • Feeling that you might faint
  • Losing control over yourself

Other physical symptoms are common for both anxiety and panic attacks. These may include:

  • Chest discomfort/pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Heart sensations
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Throat tightness
  • Tingling or numbness in extremities
  • Trembling

“A person can suffer from both types of attacks. In fact, they can also experience them simultaneously,” says Dr. Parmar. No matter what you experience, do not disregard the occurrence. This is your body’s way of telling you that something is affecting you negatively. Don’t be afraid to consult a mental health professional for help. This is all the more imperative when your quality of life has declined as a result.

Read the full Ladders article with sources. Want to learn more about your mental health? Visit our Patient Resources for articles, tips, and education from Mindpath Health’s expert clinicians.

Rashmi Parmar, MD

Newark, CA

Dr. Rashmi Parmar is a dual board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. Dr. Parmar's treatment philosophy involves making patients and their families feel heard and understood while tailoring their treatment goals. She educates her patients to make well-informed treatment choices and believes in achieving the overall well-being of an individual rather than targeting the illness itself. Dr. Parmar is well ... Read Full Bio »

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