What’s the Difference Between An Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack

Health Conditions

What’s the Difference Between An Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack

Anxiety.Panic Attack
Jennifer Hadley
By Jennifer Hadley
Feb 25, 2021
Dr. Amy Kearney
Medically Reviewed ByDr. Amy Kearney
Illustration of a man hunched over having an anxiety attack

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health conditions, affecting millions of Americans. Though many anxiety and panic disorders have similar symptoms, there are differences between various disorders, even though similar language may be used to describe these conditions.

For example, the terms anxiety attack and panic attack are often used interchangeably by the general public, but they are not the same thing. In fact, “anxiety attack” may be used by those experiencing physical and mental symptoms brought about by anxiety, but it is not a term that mental health care providers use.

Here’s a look at the differences between anxiety and a panic attack.

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What is the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack?

The first difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack is that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), clearly defines a panic attack, but does not define an anxiety attack. Instead, it defines anxiety as a feature of several common mental health disorders. In other words, the term “anxiety attack” is a non-medical term. However, many in the general public use this term to describe periods of feeling extreme anxiety.

Another primary difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack lies in the severity and abruptness of symptoms. Panic attacks often come out of the blue, and present with severe mental and physical symptoms. Individuals experiencing a panic attack for the first time, for example, may genuinely believe they are going to die and seek emergency medical care. Fortunately, panic attacks are generally short-lived, but recurring attacks after the first are not uncommon.

Anxiety, or what an individual may call an anxiety attack, often begins with mild symptoms, based on a real or perceived threat. Symptoms typically intensify over time (minutes, hours, or days), and may last for an extended period.

Because both anxiety and panic attacks have similar mental and physical symptoms, you’ll need to confirm a diagnosis with a mental health care provider.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety is typically associated with fear and linked to a stressful event, experience, or situation. For example, social anxiety disorder (sometimes called social phobia) is an intense fear of being judged, scrutinized, rejected, or watched by others.

Other individuals may suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, which as its name implies, is not linked to a stressful event, experience, or situation. Instead, it indicates a high baseline level of stress, worry, fear, and anxiety.

Regardless of the type of anxiety disorder, symptoms of anxiety are similar and may include:

  • Apprehension
  • Fear
  • Distress
  • Restlessness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

An individual experiencing some of these and other symptoms may describe the experience as an anxiety attack. Anxiety may be mild, moderate, or severe.

Definition of a Panic Attack

The DSM-5 defines and categorizes panic attacks. Per the DSM-5, panic attacks are either expected or unexpected. An expected panic attack is associated with a specific fear. Examples of fear may include a fear of leaving the house, fear of a certain animal, fear of public speaking, fear of flying, etc. An unexpected panic attack, comes out of the blue, with no obvious trigger, or association.

Both unexpected and expected panic attacks are characterized by the DSM-5 as four or more of these symptoms:

  • Chest pain/chest discomfort
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of going crazy or losing control
  • Feeling of being detached from yourself (depersonalization)
  • Feeling of being smothered
  • Feeling of choking
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization)
  • Nausea/gastrointestinal distress
  • Numbness/tingling
  • Racing heart/heart palpitations
  • Shaking/trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating

During a panic attack, your body’s fight or flight system takes over, and the attack comes on quickly. The physical responses of a panic attack are often extremely intense.

How long do panic attacks typically last?

Panic attacks may last from a few minutes to thirty minutes. If they are prolonged, they tend to peak after about 10 minutes, with symptoms then gradually subsiding. However, recurring or repeated attacks may recur for several hours after the initial attack.

An episode of anxiety may build up slowly and linger for hours or days, without ever really “peaking.”

Self-Help Tips to Get Through Panic Attacks and Anxiety

If you suffer from panic attacks or anxiety, you’ll want to seek treatment from a mental health care provider as soon as possible. While waiting to see a mental health care professional, or if you’re between appointments, there are some techniques you can use on your own to help ease symptoms. Self-help tips that can help you get through panic attacks and anxiety include:

  • Acknowledge what is happening
  • Remind yourself that these symptoms/this experience will pass
  • Breathe slowly and deeply
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as guided imagery or progressive relaxation
  • Practice mindfulness, staying grounded in the moment
  • Notice your thoughts, emotions, symptoms but avoid judging them, instead just letting them pass over you
  • Partake in fun activities (walk in nature, reading a book, whatever brings you joy)
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Reach out to a loved one for support

Medications Prescribed for Anxiety Disorders

Medications are not the first-line treatment for anxiety disorders. The first-line treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT may be used without medication or may be used in conjunction with medication. When medication to treat an anxiety disorder is prescribed it is typically an antidepressant medication.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRIs may be prescribed to treat anxiety disorders. Common SSRIs include: Citalopram (Generic Celexa) Escitalopram (Generic Lexapro) Fluoxetine (Generic Prozac) Paroxetine (Generic Paxil) Sertraline (Generic Zoloft)

Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)

SNRIs may be prescribed to treat anxiety disorders. Common SNRIs include:

Tricyclic Antidepressants

Some tricyclic antidepressant medications may also be used to treat anxiety disorders. Common tricyclic antidepressants include:

Medications Prescribed for Panic Attacks

Medications are not the first-line treatment for panic attacks. The first-line treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy may be used with or without medication. If medication is prescribed, it will often be an SSRI medication. These may include:

In some cases, and for short-term use only, a mental health care provider may also prescribe benzodiazepines for short-term management of panic attacks.

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Talk to a Mental Health Professional

When it comes to mental health conditions, an accurate diagnosis is vital to effective treatment. Many mental health conditions, including anxiety and panic disorders, have similar symptoms. That’s why it is so important to seek treatment from a professional mental health provider if you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health or mood condition. While waiting for your appointment, be sure to take advantage of free mental health resources that are available.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1–800–273–8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You may also reach out to the Samaritans: Call or text (877) 870-HOPE (4673).

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley

Jen Hadley is a freelance writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, who writes extensively about the medical, legal, health care, and consumer products industries. Jen is a regular contributor to RxSaver.

Dr. Amy Kearney

Dr. Amy Kearney

Amy Kearney earned her Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctoral degrees in Psychology from Azusa Pacific University in the Los Angeles area. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and has worked for one of the nation’s largest HMOs since 2002. She currently specializes in pain management and gets great joy from helping individuals maximize their quality of life and functioning while living with chronic conditions.

The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.