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Anxiety vs. Panic: How to Know the Difference

We often hear the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” used to describe a set of distressing symptoms. Oftentimes, these terms are used interchangeably, and it’s understandable given that anxiety and panic have similar symptoms. For clinicians, there is a differentiation between the two, as they can require different approaches. While both stem from being overwhelmed with a stressful situation, they can have two different presentations.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a buildup of emotions, often characterized by excessive worry, apprehension, and mood irritability. Typically, anxiety is correlated with excessive fear about potential dangers, whether real or perceived, that hinder daily functioning. Anxiety can be a slow build-up of worry that can, at times, feel overwhelming to the point of feeling out of control. People often characterize their thoughts as “racing” and intrusive. When anxiety reaches an all-time high, a person can feel as if they are experiencing symptoms of panic to include tightness of chest, fatigue, increased heart rate, and hypervigilance.

Anxiety is an emotion that is experienced by all humans, as it is a biological survival mechanism. The difference between experiencing anxiety and having anxiety disorder is indicated by the impact or dysfunction the anxiety is causing an individual.

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are sudden, short-term, and intense. They often stem from an intense fear, terror, or feeling of extreme discomfort. Symptoms of a panic attack are often very scary for the person, as they can mimic serious health concerns. Panic attacks are a combination of emotional and physical symptoms, including detachment, depersonalization, hyperventilating, heart racing, chills, chest pain, nausea or vomiting, shaking, excessive sweating, and feeling dizzy/short of breath. (Please note that if you are ever experiencing chest pain, it is important to speak to your doctor ASAP, as these symptoms should never be taken lightly). Panic attacks can subside after 10 minutes but can also last for extended amounts of time or may occur in succession.

Panic attacks are common. In fact, one third of adults will experience a panic attack at least once in their lifetime. Panic attacks impact 1 out of 10 individuals between the ages 15-25 each year. Just because you experience panic attacks does not mean that you meet diagnostic criteria for panic disorder, which is characterized by the recurrent experience of panic attacks and prolonged, increased fear following an attack.

What does this mean for treatment?

Both anxiety disorder and panic disorder must be diagnosed by a licensed professional through a biopsychosocial assessment. However, it is highly recommended that if you are experiencing distress related to anxiety or panic, you should consider seeking out mental health services to help you address the symptoms. Treatment could be helpful in the process of learning about and understanding why worry and fear are impacting you currently, while also giving you tools to decrease the distress you’re experiencing.

There is no one-size-fits-all method to treating anxiety or panic disorder. Each individual experiences symptoms differently, meaning each person’s treatment needs may differ.

There are several evidence-based options to treating anxiety and panic:

  • mindfulness

  • psychotherapy

  • exposure-based treatment

  • medication

  • a combination of treatment approaches

Although experiencing anxiety or panic is extremely stressful and overwhelming, there is evidence that it can be managed to ensure a better quality of life.

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