Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: Are They The Same?

Apr 19, 20246 min
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Ever wondered about the differences between anxiety attacks vs panic attacks? Yes, they are not the same conditions. In fact, there is a lot of misinformation on social media about panic attacks. Unlike common understanding, panic attacks are very different from anxiety attacks. Due to some similarities between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, people often use them interchangeably.

Whether you experience a panic attack or anxiety attack, it is important to know what you are dealing with. Both of these conditions can leave you feeling overwhelmed and scared. Understanding the differences also helps you seek a proper diagnosis and treatment. Sometimes we keep knocking on the wrong door until we realize that we are dealing with a different condition altogether. Before we step into the differences between anxiety attacks vs panic attacks, there are other terms that we have to demystify.

What is The Difference Between Anxiety, Stress, and Panic?

With so many ways to describe your mood and physical sensations, it can get confusing to know which term to use. We all experience fear and worry from time to time. However, strong emotional and physical symptoms frequently accompany panic, stress, and anxiety.

Stress

We all experience stress to some degree in our lives. It can be typically described as ‘tension’ or ‘pressure’ when a lot is happening around you. We generally experience it when we feel that we can’t handle or deal with external things around us. Sometimes, this stress can get overwhelming and impact both our mental and physical health. For instance, we may experience digestion issues, physical pain, intense sadness, and many others.

Anxiety

Anxiety is marked by a deep sense of worry. It may feel like you can’t stop thinking about future events or, rather, what may go wrong. You can often recognize it by ‘what if’ thoughts. For example, ‘What if I fail the exam?’, ‘What if I don’t reach the meeting on time?’, ‘What if I sound stupid while answering?’

Difference between Anxiety, Stress, and Panic - Therapyclub

Panic

When your anxiety builds up too quickly and your body reacts strongly, you may experience panic. It feels like a sudden storm of emotions and thoughts. Panic is often sudden and occurs for a short time. 

Can these three exist together? Perhaps not at the same time, but you can experience them over time. For example, you have a big meeting coming up, for which you feel unprepared (stress). As a consequence, you can’t stop worrying about how bad it may be for you (anxiety). During the day of your meeting, everything feels like too much and suddenly you feel too many emotions (panic).

Spotlight on Anxiety

Anxiety is generally experienced at three levels: thoughts, physical, and behavioral. At the thought level, you may start expecting scary things to happen, you may feel under confident about your ability to cope, and you may constantly scan your environment for threats.

At the physical level, anxiety activates our fight, flight, or freeze response. It is important to understand this response and how it rushes to protect us in potentially dangerous situations. Imagine that there is a smoke alarm in your body that alerts you to save yourself. As soon as this alarm goes off, your body makes changes to protect you.

Please remember that this is a natural survival response and you would either want to run away from the situation (flight), fight it off (fight), or stay until the danger passes away (freeze).

Your brain starts sending signals to various parts of the body. Here are some common changes that you can experience:

  • Your heart rate increases and breathing gets faster.
  • The digestive system is not a priority, so it slows down and you may feel like you have lost your appetite and your mouth dries up.
  • As blood leaves your stomach to power the muscles, you may experience ‘butterflies’ in your stomach.
  • Your body gets hot and you may start sweating, especially in your palms.
  • Your bladder may relax and you may want to rush to the loo!

Finally, at the behavioral level, you may feel that you need to leave the situation or avoid it as much as possible. In cases of high anxiety, you may try to stay as safe as possible and not leave your home!

What Are The Significant Differences Between Anxiety Attacks and Panic Attacks?

Understanding the differences between anxiety attacks and panic attacks can help you take steps to address your feelings accordingly. 

What is different?

Anxiety attacks are often associated with an event or a specific cause. Some of these can be work and family stress, phobias, past traumatic experiences, etc.

A metaphor to understand anxiety attacks is a bathtub gradually filling up with water. Imagine that you leave the tap on and the bathtub slowly fills up. It reaches a point when it is completely filled up and then water flows out of the tub. Similarly, anxiety attacks build over time until you reach a breaking point i.e. a point where you can’t take the worries anymore. A common understanding of anxiety attacks is that they can last longer, in comparison to panic attacks, which are more episodic.

Panic attacks are like balloons or bubbles bursting suddenly. You may be suddenly taken over by an overwhelming sense of fear. Sometimes panic attacks can be expected. For example, if you fear something intensely and it suddenly comes in front of you, there are chances that you may experience panic. 

Panic attacks are usually short lived and episodic. They last for a shorter duration than an anxiety attack. However, they are considered more intense than anxiety attacks. Many individuals feel as if they are going to experience a heart attack.

Role of Hormones

Our hormonal system secretes hormones depending on the emotions we are experiencing. You may not be able to see it, but a lot is happening internally. 

For anxiety, our adrenal glands tend to produce cortisol. When we experience panic, our adrenal glands also release adrenaline leading to a fear response. The two hormones have a huge role to play in how we respond to situations or take actions. 

Cortisol helps us become more alert and aware of our situation. For example, you have an exam coming up and you start feeling anxious. This anxiety may not be too bad since it may give you the energy to focus and prepare you for the exams. Adrenaline on the other hand feels like a ‘rush’ and wants us to take action immediately. When you panic, it may feel like you are immediately in danger.

Coping Strategy

The coping strategies for anxiety and panic attacks differ from each other. 

Anxiety attacks:

  • Making lifestyle changes to reduce your overall level of stress.
  • Incorporate deep breathing techniques to help you feel more relaxed. Try to focus on taking in deep breaths from your mouth and 
  • Exercise regularly and eat balanced meals.
  • Ask for support and call your loved one who can help you get out of your thought loop.

Panic attacks: 

Unlike heart attacks, panic attacks are not dangerous to your health, but they can feel dangerous. You can also try the same changes for a panic attack, but with panic attacks, you might benefit from additional tools. 

  • By working with a therapist, you can start identifying thoughts associated with panic. For example, what are things that you are afraid will happen when you panic?
  • You can learn to challenge your thoughts and check for evidence.
  • Learn coping skills such as deep and controlled breathing. For example, breathing in for four seconds, holding it, and then breathing out for four seconds. 

End Note

Anyone can experience anxiety and panic, and these feelings may be in response to stressful circumstances. However, panic attacks can also happen without a stressful situation and can be more unpredictable. Both anxiety and panic attacks share the common symptoms of fear and discomfort. Additionally, both emotions activate our fight, flight, or freeze responses. However, it is important to keep their differences in mind and seek help on the basis of the symptoms you are experiencing. 

Both anxiety and panic attacks are treatable. You can start working on decreasing your stress levels by introducing breathing techniques and working with a mental health professional. By working with a therapist, you can recognize the thoughts and behaviors that may contribute to the maintenance of a panic or anxiety attack. Additionally, they can also help you with specific techniques to manage your symptoms. It can be confusing at first, but as you start identifying your symptoms, you gain more clarity about what has been bothering you and seek help accordingly!

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Anvita Sethi
Psychologist | Trauma Informed Therapist | M.Sc. Clinical Psychology