What is the difference between a panic attack and anxiety

What is the difference between a panic attack and anxiety?

The terms anxiety attack and panic attack are often used interchangeably as if they are two different names for the same thing. If you want to be scientifically correct though you must distinguish between anxiety and a panic attack.

What is the difference between a panic attack and anxietyAnxiety is a more general name associated with all the anxiety symptoms of which a panic attack may or may not be one, depending on the severity of the condition. If, however you experience more than two panic attacks within a certain timeframe you may be suffering from panic disorder and not generalized anxiety disorder. As if this is not complicated enough, there are also other anxiety disorders other than panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder like post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, specific phobias, social phobias and acute stress disorder. It is also possible to suffer from more than one of these disorders at the same time.

A panic attack may be described as a moment of intense fear during which you may feel as if you are going to pass out or even worse, drop dead at any moment. Panic attacks can last from 5 minutes up to half an hour and are usually accompanied by 4 or more of the following symptoms:

  • A rapid heartbeat
  • Excessive sweating
  • A trembling body
  • Hyperventilation or difficulty breathing
  • A choking sensation
  • Pain or discomfort over your chest
  • Nausea, vomiting or an upset tummy
  • Lightheadedness
  • Feeling unreal or distant from your surroundings
  • Fear of going mad or being out of control
  • Fear of death
  • Either a numb or a tingling sensation in your body
  • Feeling either chilly or hot

Having a panic attack doesn’t necessarily mean that you suffer from panic disorder. It is estimated that up to 35% percent of the population suffer from panic attacks at least once in their lives. In order to be diagnosed with panic disorder you need to display the following:

  • Feelings of fear and anxiety.
  • You should be startled easily.
  • You should be trying to avoid situations, places or people that can trigger a panic attack.
  • You should have experienced continuous panic attacks combined with at least one month of excessive worry and fear of another panic attack.
  • You should have changed some of your behavioral patterns in order to avoid another panic attack.

The major difference between anxiety and a panic attack is that the onset of anxiety is usually gradual while a panic attack happens suddenly. Anxiety is also closely linked to excessive worrying, while panic attacks may happen for either a specific present reason or for no apparent reason at all. Other than that the symptoms between the two may be very similar. The symptoms of anxiety are the following:

  • Tense muscles
  • Sleep disorders
  • Lack of concentration
  • Being over tired
  • Being restless
  • Feeling irritated
  • Being startled easily
  • An increase in your heart rate
  • Being short of breath
  • Feeling dizzy

We all may experience stressful situations at times that may lead to anxiety, but that does not necessarily mean that you suffer from generalized anxiety disorder just because you are feeling anxious. To be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder you need to experience the following:

  • Feelings of anxiety and fear
  • You should be trying to avoid situations, places or people that make you feel anxious.
  • You should be easily startled or aroused
  • You should have a 6 month history of anxiety, worry and the above mentioned physical symptoms.

During a panic attack the first thing you should try and do is to get your breathing back to normal. This will in turn relieve some of your others symptoms too. Cupping your hand over your nose and mouth or using a paper bag can help restore the carbon dioxide in your blood. Alternatively you can focus on breathing in slowly through your nose and then slowly releasing your breath through your mouth. Don’t try to ignore the panic attack but focus your attention on the word “calm”. Remember that a panic attack is a normal phenomenon that many people will experience. It doesn’t mean you are crazy and even if it feels like it you won’t die from a panic attack.

In 2010 the National Depression Initiative of Australia released a useful information booklet on tested ways of dealing with anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, the different phobias etc. Equipping yourself with information on how to deal with anxiety may be the first step in overcoming it all together.


Ankrom, Sheryl. “Anxiety Attacks Versus Panic Attacks: What’s the Difference?” About.com.Panic Disorder. 2009. Panicdisorder.about.com (October 11, 2012). http://panicdisorder.about.com/od/understandingpanic/a/anxvspanic.htm

“Diagnosis and decision making. Recognition and diagnosis of panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.” 2004. Clinical Guidelines for the Management of Anxiety: Management of Anxiety (Panic Disorder, with or without Agoraphobia, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder) in Adults in Primary, Secondary and Community Care [Internet]. NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 22.School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield. London: National Collaborating Centre for Primary Care (UK).  (October 11, 2012). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK45855/

Reavley NJ, Allen NB, Jorm AF, Morgan AJ, Purcell R. “A Guide to What Works for Anxiety Disorders.”

Beyondblue. Melbourne, 2010. MHFA.Com.au. (October 11, 2012) http://www.mhfa.com.au/cms/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/whatworks_anxietydisorders.pdf

“What is a panic attack? NHS choices. 2011. NHS.uk (October 11, 2012) http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/understanding-panic-attacks.aspx

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