Saturday, April 13, 2024

What’s the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

What’s the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

They are not the same but do tend to overlap, writes Vinita Alvares Fernandes


A year ago, my twenty five year old daughter was diagnosed with moderate to severe anxiety as a result of depression. I only ever knew of this condition theoretically but seeing her go through the ups and downs and the mental turmoil made me wonder — What exactly is an anxiety attack? 


People with anxiety disorders oftentimes have intense, excessive and persistent emotions about worry and fear in everyday situations. Very often, anxiety disorders involve recurring episodes of sudden and intense anxiety, fear or terror that can reach a peak within minutes and leave the door wide open for a panic attack. 

Which brought me to my next thought— are anxiety attacks and panic attacks the same? 

Let’s be clear, they are not the same but do tend to overlap. 


What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are very sudden stemming from overwhelmingly intense fear. They’re accompanied by challenging physical symptoms, like a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath or breathlessness and sometimes even nausea.

Unexpected panic attacks occur without an obvious cause whereas expected panic attacks are triggered by external stressors like phobias. 

Panic attacks can happen to anyone, but having more than one may be a sign of panic disorder.


What is an anxiety attack? 

Anxiety disorders are a type of mental health condition. It goes beyond the regular nervousness and slight fear you may feel from time to time. Anxiety is usually related to the anticipation of a stressful situation, experience, or event. It comes on gradually. People who suffer from anxiety find it difficult to go about their daily lives, it interferes with your ability to function, you tend to overthink and over react to situations because they trigger your emotions and you can’t control your emotional responses. Intense feelings of anxiety are called an anxiety attack. 


Read on to find out more about the differences between panic attacks and anxiety —


Panic and anxiety attacks may feel similar and rightly so because they share a lot of emotional and physical symptoms and you can even experience both at the same time.

For example, you might experience anxiety while worrying about a stressful situation like a public speech and when the situation arrives, the anxiety may culminate into a panic attack.


Let’s take it back to school with a table: 

Symptoms Anxiety attack Panic attack
Emotional apprehension and worry
Fear of dying or losing control 
A sense of detachment from the world (derealization) or oneself (depersonalisation)
Physical symptoms like heart palpitations, an accelerated heart rate, chest pain, shortness of breath, tightness in the throat, dry mouth, sweating, chills, hot flashes, tightness, numbness, nausea, faint or dizziness


Sometimes it’s hard to tell which of the two attacks you’re experiencing, 

here are some key things to look out for —

  • Anxiety is something that’s perceived to be stressful or threatening.
  •  Panic attacks aren’t always cued by stressors. They often occur out of the blue.
  • Anxiety can be mild, moderate or severe. Panic attacks on the other hand are only severe. 
  • During a panic attack, the body’s fight-or-flight response takes over.
  • Anxiety can build gradually whereas panic attacks come on abruptly.
  • Fear of panic attacks often affects your future behaviour where you tend to avoid places or situations where you think you might be at risk of a panic attack.


Anxiety and panic attacks have a few similar risk factors —

  • Unexpected panic attacks have no clear external triggers whereas expected panic attacks and anxiety attacks can have the same or similar triggers. 


  • Anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be caused by experiencing or witnessing traumatic events as a child or as an adult. 


  • A major life event that evokes stress like death or divorce can cause either of the two attacks. 


  • Ongoing stress and worries, personal or profession can trigger panic attacks as well as anxiety attacks. 


  • Living with a chronic or life threatening health condition puts you at risk for panic and anxiety attacks. 


  • You run the risk of having a panic attack or anxiety attack if you have an anxious personality or a mental disorder like depression or bipolar disorder or if these conditions are in your gene pool. 


  • Lastly, People who experience anxiety are at risk of experiencing panic attacks. However, having anxiety does not mean you will automatically experience a panic attack.


Reaching a diagnosis —

Doctors can’t diagnose anxiety attacks but they can diagnose anxiety symptoms, anxiety disorders, panic attacks and panic disorders. Your doctor or psychiatrist will ask you a series of relevant questions, your symptoms, health history, a physical exam, blood tests, an ECG or EKG and most importantly a psychological evaluation to confirm the diagnosis. 


Treatment options — 


Counselling and psychotherapy:

Therapy for anxiety and panic disorders often involve one or a combination of: Cognitive-behavioural therapy which helps you see things that worry you from a new perspective, developing ways to manage triggers and reframe the unhelpful underlying  thoughts that cause anxiety. 

Exposure therapy involves controlled exposure to situations that trigger fear and anxiety in order to confront these situations and fears in a new way.

Relaxation techniques like breathing exercises, guided imagery or progressive relaxation. 



Your doctor may prescribe medication like antidepressants or beta blockers which can help manage some of the emotional and physical symptoms. Oftentimes, doctors recommend a combination of treatments that get altered overtime. 


Home remedies:

  • Deep breathing: Taking slow deep breaths focusing on your breathing patterns can help divert your mind. 
  • Recognising and accepting what you’re experiencing and reminding yourself that the symptoms will pass and you will be alright. 
  • Practice mindfulness where you ground your thoughts are in the present and actively observe your thoughts and sensations without reacting to them. 
  • Lastly, you can use relaxation techniques to calm yourself down. 


Lifestyle changes:

Reducing and managing the sources of stress in your life by identifying and stopping negative thoughts, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, meditating and talking about your thoughts and feelings can help you cope with anxiety. 



Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are not the same. Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life but if you feel like it is hindering your daily life normal activities, it might be time to take charge of the problem and work towards overcoming it. 

Just because you can’t physically see the pain mental health causes doesn’t mean it isn’t there. 

Mind you…

one can sound confident and still have anxiety, 

one can look confident and still have panic attacks, 

one can look happy and still feel miserable. 

Be kind and slow to judge because everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. 

Vinita Alvares Fernandes
Vinita Alvares Fernandes is an Economics graduate, a writer and a Trinity College certified public speaker and communicator

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