Understanding the Tension: Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack - What You Need to Know

May 9, 2024

Panic attack vs anxiety attack: what sets them apart? Instant and intense, panic attacks hit hard and without warning. Anxiety attacks, in contrast, typically build up slowly over time, emanating from ongoing stress. This article will not only help you distinguish between the two but also guide you through understanding their symptoms, triggers, and strategies for management. We will also learn about the benefits a therapist can provide to you as you manage anxiety or panic attacks.

Key Takeaways

  • Panic attacks are sudden, intense episodes of fear and discomfort with various mental and physical symptoms, while anxiety attacks build up gradually with sustained apprehension and stress over time.
  • Panic disorder and anxiety disorders have interconnected symptoms and triggers, and they often coexist with other conditions like OCD, PTSD, and phobias, necessitating comprehensive diagnosis and treatment approaches.
  • Treatment for panic and anxiety attacks includes cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, medications like SSRIs and SNRIs, and self-help strategies such as relaxation techniques and deep breathing exercises.

What Are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks can feel intense and unanticipated, flooding the senses with a torrent of fear and physical sensations. Picture the body’s alarm system sounding off all at once without a clear and present danger—this is the hallmark of a panic attack. The experience is not only characterized by the profound intensity of fear and discomfort but also by a cascade of mental and physical symptoms that can hijack one’s sense of reality.

Understanding panic attacks is crucial, for they are often mistaken for other medical emergencies, causing further distress. These episodes can leave individuals feeling vulnerable and seeking shelter from their own physiology. As we peel back the layers and examine the causes and symptoms of panic attacks, we’ll seek to understand the mechanisms behind these attacks.

Triggers of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can stem from a variety of factors, each with the potential to result in overwhelming experience. Some common triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Excessive caffeine intake
  • Social dynamics
  • Misinterpretation of one’s physiological sensations

These immediate stressors can converge at a moment’s notice, pushing the body’s response into overdrive. The misinterpretation of one's physiological responses, such as misinterpreting a racing heart as a sign of a heart attack, can escalate fear and anxiety, potentially leading to a panic attack.

Unique settings and personal vulnerabilities also play their part. A crowded theater, the constrained space of public transportation, or the formal atmosphere of business meetings can cause panic to develop, especially when coupled with feelings of helplessness. 

Panic disorder that goes unrecognized and untreated can quickly become agoraphobia, which involves fear of situations or spaces that may cause one to feel trapped or embarrassed. When someone experiences one or more intense panic attacks, they may choose to stop leaving their home entirely. These types of extreme measures taken to avoid panic attacks rather than getting treatment can alter people's lives greatly.

Recognizing these triggers is the first step in preventing the sprouting of a full-blown panic attack, providing an opportunity for early intervention and coping strategies.

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

As a panic attack suddenly arises, the body signals distress through unmistakable panic attack symptoms. These symptoms may include:

  • A racing, pounding heart, possibly causing chest pain
  • Sweat gathering on the brow
  • Tremors rippling through the limbs
  • Breath becoming shallow
  • The world seeming to spin or slip away
  • Sensations of depersonalization or derealization, painting reality in surreal strokes
  • A fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy
  • A strong desire to run

The ferocity of these symptoms typically peaks within minutes, though their echo can last longer, leaving a trail of stress and unease. The physical manifestations are not the only remnants; the emotional aftermath can be just as taxing, as individuals wrestle with the fear of another unexpected onslaught. Understanding these symptoms is not just about recognition—it’s about preparing a mental and emotional first aid kit for when the next panic attack hits.

What Are Anxiety Attacks?

Anxiety attacks, while lacking a formal definition in clinical manuals, are no less real for those who endure them. Unlike the sudden deluge of a panic attack, anxiety attacks are the cumulative effect of stressors, gradually building and amplifying over time.

Understanding anxiety attacks involves becoming attuned to the gradual build-up of stress and the various factors that contribute to it. As we uncover the causes and symptoms of anxiety attacks, we arm ourselves with the foresight to recognize these bouts of anxiety.

Causes of Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks often stem from prolonged stress, where worries and fears are left unchecked. Life’s daily pressures can accumulate, each one adding weight until the burden becomes too heavy to bear. Specific events, like a sudden loss or a looming deadline, can act as catalysts, igniting the slow burn of anxiety into a more acute experience.

The escalation of this anxiety is fed by the fear of potential threats, both real and imagined. It’s the mind’s attempt to prepare for or avoid these perceived dangers that can spiral into an anxiety attack. Recognition of these triggers is a pivotal step in maintaining control over one’s mental state.

Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks

When anxiety attacks strike, they bring a barrage of symptoms that can disrupt one’s sense of equilibrium. Some common symptoms include:

  • Overwhelming worry that floods the mind, forcing out rational thought and replacing it with a pervasive sense of dread
  • Mood swings that toss one between sadness, anger, or irritability
  • Tense muscles, as if bracing for impact

These symptoms can vary from person to person, but they are all part of the experience of an anxiety attack.

Physical symptoms, too, mark the presence of an anxiety attack. Nausea may twist the stomach, heart palpitations echo a frantic rhythm, and a cold sweat may dampen the skin, all underscored by the looming shadow of danger that feels just out of sight. This gradual intensification of anxiety attack symptoms can stretch out over time, casting a long shadow over one’s days. Understanding these signals can help navigate through them.

Comparing Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks

When placed side by side, panic and anxiety attacks reveal distinct landscapes. Panic attacks are sudden, arriving without warning and leaving as swiftly as they come. In stark contrast, anxiety attacks may build slowly, but are no less insidious in their persistence.

The physical symptoms of these experiences differ as well. Panic attacks often leave a tangible trail of intense, visceral symptoms that can mimic life-threatening conditions, such as a heart attack, due to symptoms like chest pain or heart palpitations. Meanwhile, anxiety attacks may be preceded by fewer intensely physical symptoms, typically manifesting as a gradual increase in discomfort rather than sudden, overwhelming pain.

Emotionally, panic attacks tend to manifest as sheer terror, while an anxiety attack may build like a gnawing apprehension.

The Link Between Panic Disorder and Anxiety Disorders

Panic disorder and anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, often coexist and can deeply impact each other. While panic attacks and anxiety attacks are among the most intense manifestations of these disorders, they often occur within the context of other related conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and specific phobias.

These disorders share common roots that include a mix of social, psychological, and biological factors, which can influence their development and severity. The frequent occurrence of panic attacks is a key indicator of panic disorder, especially when these episodes significantly disrupt daily life. This condition, along with its related disorders, requires a nuanced approach to treatment that addresses the broad spectrum of symptoms and their interactions.

Diagnosing Panic and Anxiety Attacks

Wading through the murky waters of panic and anxiety to arrive at a diagnosis is a task for professionals equipped with the right tools. Guided by the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), healthcare providers evaluate:

  • Symptoms
  • Fears
  • Stress levels
  • A thorough examination of one’s personal and family history.

The process is comprehensive, often involving physical examinations, blood tests, and psychological evaluations to rule out other potential causes. Screening tools provide a diagnostic beacon, casting light on symptoms that might otherwise remain obscured.

For those seeking clarity on their experiences of panic or anxiety, working with a professional who can arrive at a diagnosis is an important step on the path to effective treatment and management.

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Treatment Options for Panic and Anxiety

Navigating panic and anxiety attacks may require a combination of treatment options. Here are three approaches to consider:

  1. Therapy: Working with a therapist can help you understand the root causes of your anxiety and develop coping mechanisms to manage it.
  2. Medications: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help alleviate symptoms and provide relief.
  3. Self-help strategies: There are various self-help techniques you can try, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and physical activity, to help reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.

These interventions are like lighthouses guiding those lost in the storm toward safety and well-being.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy can address the underlying patterns that contribute to panic and anxiety attacks. Medications can address symptoms as well, while self-help strategies can help navigate through the day-to-day. Together, these treatments offer a comprehensive approach to treat panic attacks and manage the conditions, empowering individuals to take control of their mental health journeys.

Therapy Approaches

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help those experiencing panic and anxiety. Through this evidence-based approach, individuals can confront the fears and situations they’ve been avoiding, gradually diminishing the power these triggers hold over them.

Exposure within the safety of therapy allows individuals to face the physical sensations of panic without the threat of real danger. This controlled setting is akin to a simulator, where one can practice navigating the storms of panic until they no longer pose a threat. With each session, the patient builds resilience, equipping themselves with the tools needed to weather future episodes.

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For some, the path to managing panic and anxiety is paved with pharmacological aids. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are among the medications that can provide a steadying influence on the often unpredictable waves of panic attacks. Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) also serve as an additional lifeline for those seeking relief from the symptoms that can capsize one’s sense of control.

Medications are not one-size-fits-all solutions; they must be carefully tailored to the individual’s needs, taking into account their medical history and unique experiences. Working in tandem with a healthcare provider, patients can find the medication that best suits their needs.

Self-Help Strategies

Self-help strategies serve as a compass for those seeking direction in managing their anxiety and panic. Relaxation techniques, like the gentle ebb and flow of yoga, can soothe the mind and provide a respite from the relentless tide of worry. Deep breathing exercises offer a lifeline, a way to center oneself amidst the storm and find a moment of peace in the eye of the hurricane.

Progressive muscle relaxation and other self-administered techniques are like personal anchors, helping to ground individuals when the waves threaten to pull them under. These strategies, when practiced consistently, can fortify one’s defenses against the onset of panic and anxiety attacks.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main differences between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

The main difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack is that panic attacks come on suddenly with intense physical symptoms, including a sense of imminent doom, while anxiety attacks develop more gradually and are characterized by persistent worry and tension without the acute terror associated with panic attacks.

Can panic attacks be a sign of a panic disorder?

Yes, experiencing repeated panic attacks, especially those that begin to disrupt daily life, can be indicative of a panic disorder. This condition is marked by frequent and unexpected panic attacks and the fear of their occurrence.

What role does cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) play in treating panic and anxiety attacks?

CBT is an effective treatment for panic and anxiety attacks, as it helps patients understand their symptoms and teaches them coping mechanisms, including confronting feared situations and learning to manage associated anxiety.

Are medications necessary for treating panic and anxiety attacks?

Medications are not always necessary for treating panic and anxiety attacks. Treatment plans should be tailored to each individual's unique needs and may include therapy, self-help strategies, or a combination of these.

How can Resilience Lab help with panic and anxiety attacks?

Resilience Lab can help with panic and anxiety attacks by connecting clients with specialized therapists who offer personalized, evidence-based care either virtually or in-person, and accept in-network insurance coverage. This can assist individuals in managing and overcoming their symptoms effectively.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

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