Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition, affecting nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives. The terms panic attack and anxiety attack are often used interchangeably. And although they do have some similar symptoms and characteristics, they are two different disorders. So if you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. Read on to learn the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack.
What is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks are a symptom of panic disorder. They are identified as a sudden fear, discomfort, or a sense of losing control. They usually occur unexpectedly without notice or a trigger.
Typically, panic attacks begin to subside after a few minutes but sometimes can last as long as 30 minutes. Repeated attacks may recur for several hours, making episodes appear to last longer. In addition, the frequency of panic attacks can vary, sometimes occurring several times a day or a few times a year.
During a panic attack, your body’s fight or flight system takes over, and the attack comes on quickly accompanied by symptoms, including:
- a rapid heart rate
- chest pain
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- hot flashes or chills
- numbness or tingling in the extremities
- shortness of breath
- stomach pain
What is an Anxiety Attack?
Anxiety attacks are characterized as feelings of worry, fear, and distress. Unlike panic attacks that come on suddenly, anxiety attacks usually follow a period of excessive worry. They go hand-in-hand with several mental health disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Anxiety attacks are not a diagnosable condition; therefore, signs and symptoms vary from person to person. Stressors often trigger them, which can build up over time. Symptoms are usually not as intense as those during a panic attack, but they can last for an extended period of time. Symptoms include:
- increased heart rate
- rapid breathing
- a sense of impending danger
- difficulty concentrating
- sleep disturbances
What Causes Panic and Anxiety Attacks?
There is no definitive answer about what specifically causes these attacks. However, genetics and medical and external factors are believed to play a role.
It’s even possible to simultaneously experience both a panic attack and an anxiety attack. For example, someone may be anxious about attending a party, experiencing several anxiety attacks leading up to the actual event. Once they enter the situation, they may have the onset of a panic attack.
Those susceptible to experiencing either a panic or an anxiety attack include individuals with:
- Family history of panic attacks
- Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder
- Chronic medical conditions
- Challenges with substance use
- Stressful life experiences
Treatment for Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks
It’s important to get to the root cause of these disorders in order to find proper treatment. A combination of therapy and medication is often used to manage symptoms and prevent further attacks from occurring.
If stressors and triggers are known, coping methods and techniques can be utilized. Your doctor will work with you to understand your triggers and what you can do to combat negative feelings and thoughts. For example, they may help you establish breathing and relaxation techniques to use when you feel anxious or experience a panic attack.
Medication is used to help manage and reduce symptoms. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are popular antidepressants prescribed to increase serotonin levels in the brain. These are taken for long periods of time to provide relief from panic and anxiety disorders. However, for short-term and on-the-spot treatment, your doctor may prescribe benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines are sedatives that help to calm you down without you having to have a buildup of the medication in your system.
Panic and anxiety attacks can be disruptive and debilitating, but fortunately, there are treatment methods that can offer relief. The sooner you seek help, the better you will feel.