How do you know if you’re having a panic or anxiety attack?
Panic and anxiety attacks typically differ in severity and cause. However, they can both cause a rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, and a sense of distress.
Panic attacks are often more intense and can occur with or without a trigger, while anxiety attacks are a response to a perceived threat.
People often use the terms panic attack and anxiety attack interchangeably, but they are not the same. These types of attacks have different intensities and durations.
Symptoms of anxiety have links to mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and trauma, while panic attacks mainly affect those with panic disorder.
In this article, we detail the differences between panic and anxiety attacks.
Differentiating between panic and anxiety attacks
Because the symptoms are so similar, it can be difficult to distinguish between panic and anxiety attacks.
Here are some tips that can help:
|Panic attacks||Anxiety attacks|
|Typically occur with a trigger but can occur without one.||A response to a perceived stressor or threat.|
|Symptoms typically appear suddenly.||Feelings of anxiety may build gradually over time.|
|Symptoms are disruptive and may involve a sense of detachment.||Symptoms can vary in intensity from mild to severe.|
|Typically subside after a few minutes.||Symptoms may prevail for longer periods.|
What are the signs and symptoms?
Anxiety and panic attacks have different symptoms.
Panic attack symptoms
Panic attacks come on suddenly and can occur with or without an identifiable trigger.
- a rapid heart rate
- chest pain
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- hot flashes or chills
- numbness or tingling in the extremities
- shortness of breath
- stomach pain
People experiencing a panic attack may also:
- feel a loss of control
- have a sudden fear that they will die
- feel detached from themselves or their surroundings
Panic attacks tend to last for 5–20 minutes.
However, several panic attacks can occur in a row, making it seem like an attack lasts much longer. After an attack, many people feel stressed, worried, or otherwise unusual for the rest of the day.
Learn more about panic attacks and panic disorder here.
Anxiety attack symptoms
While panic attacks come on suddenly, anxiety symptoms follow a period of excessive worry.
Anxiety symptoms may become more pronounced over a few minutes or hours. They are typically less intense than those of panic attacks.
Anxiety attacks are not a diagnosable condition. However, symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) include:
- increased heart rate
- rapid breathing
- a sense of impending danger
- difficulty concentrating
- sleep disturbances
Anxiety symptoms often last longer than the symptoms of a panic attack. They may persist for days, weeks, or months.
Visit our dedicated anxiety hub here.
What causes panic and anxiety attacks?
The exact causes of anxiety and panic disorders are unclear. People likely develop these disorders due to a combination of genetic, medical, and external factors.
Learn more about the causes of anxiety here.
People may experience panic or anxiety attacks due to predictable or unpredictable threats. These threats may be real or perceived.
A person may experience anxiety or panic attacks due to:
- environmental stressors
- withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
- chronic conditions or chronic pain
- medication side effects
- phobias (excessive fears of objects or situations)
- exposure to trauma triggers
- overuse of stimulants such as caffeine
Risk factors for panic attacks
People are more likely to experience panic attacks if they have:
- personal or family history of panic attacks
- other mental health issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder
- a chronic medical condition, such as a thyroid disorder, diabetes, or heart disease
- issues with alcohol or drug use
- life stressors
- stressful events
- past trauma
A 2019 study found that sexual minorities are more likely to experience GAD, although the prevalence varied by age group. Researchers classified any person that endorsed same-sex attraction, same-sex behavior, or identified as non-heterosexual as a sexual minority.
Other studies found that LGBT+ young people are twice as likely to experience anxiety or panic attacks as their peers.
Women are also twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder as men.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose a panic attack, panic disorder, or anxiety disorder.
They base their diagnoses on definitions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
These professionals cannot diagnose an anxiety attack because it is not a clinically defined condition in the DSM-5. They can, however, recognize the symptoms of anxiety and diagnose an anxiety disorder.
A doctor will discuss symptoms and life events to diagnose any of these conditions. They may also perform a psychological evaluation to determine which category the symptoms fall into.
It may be necessary to rule out physiological conditions that share similar symptoms.
To do this, a doctor may perform:
- a physical examination
- blood tests
- heart tests, such as an EKG
Mental health resources
Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and resources on mental health and well-being.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends the following home remedies for stress and anxiety:
- manage or reduce stressors
- limit alcohol and caffeine intake
- eat a healthy and balanced diet
- sleep for 8 hours a night
- practice meditation, yoga, or deep breathing
- build a support network
During a panic or anxiety attack
The following strategies can help during an attack:
- Acknowledgment: The symptoms of a panic or anxiety attack can be extremely frightening. Acknowledging the situation and remembering that symptoms will soon pass can reduce anxiety and fear.
- Breathing techniques: Difficulty breathing is among the most common and alarming symptoms of these attacks. Learning techniques to control breathing can help during an attack.
- Relaxation techniques: Methods of relaxation, such as progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery, can reduce feelings of panic and anxiety.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness helps people stay grounded in the present moment. It can be especially beneficial for people with anxiety, who tend to worry about perceived and potential stressors.
Medical professionals will assess a person’s symptoms and plan treatment accordingly. This will typically center on therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
Engaging in interpersonal therapy sessions can help identify triggers and manage symptoms. Therapy also aims to help people accept the past and work toward the future. These sessions can take place in person or remotely.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common treatment for GAD and panic disorder. CBT focuses on a person’s behavioral responses to specific events or stressors. Therapists will work with their patients to establish new behavioral habits and techniques for responding to stressors.
Learn more about CBT and its applications here.
Medication can reduce symptoms in people with severe anxiety and panic disorders. Doctors may recommend medications as a stand-alone treatment or alongside psychotherapy.
A doctor may prescribe:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): This is a type of antidepressant that increases serotonin levels in the brain.
- Serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): This is another antidepressant medication. It works by increasing levels of serotonin and noradrenaline in the brain.
- Pregabalin: If antidepressants do not work, a doctor may prescribe pregabalin, an anticonvulsant. Doctors typically prescribe this to reduce seizure frequency and severity in epilepsy. However, it can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety.
- Benzodiazepines: Doctors may prescribe benzodiazepines as a short-term treatment for severe anxiety. This medication is a sedative and is not safe for long-term use.
In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that benzodiazepine use can lead to physical dependence, and withdrawal can be life threatening. Combining these drugs with alcohol, opioids, and other substances can result in death. It is essential to follow the doctor’s instructions when using these and other antianxiety drugs.
Learn more about the different types of anxiety medications here.
Panic and anxiety attacks are different, but they share some symptoms.
Anxiety attacks often follow periods of prolonged worry. Panic attacks tend to occur suddenly, and the symptoms are often more intense.
Panic and anxiety can be distressing and disruptive, but self-help strategies can reduce the intensity of symptoms. Therapy and medication can prevent or reduce the number of future episodes.
The sooner a person seeks help, the better the outcome.