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Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: What's The Difference?


Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: What's The Difference?

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are terms that are often used interchangeably, although they have subtle but important differences. 

Using the right language to be able to identify and seek help for what you’re struggling with can help you not only learn more about what you’re going through but also help you find the best ways to help yourself cope with your attacks.

PYM has done the research for you, so that you can understand the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack. We also have tips to help you deal with both.

Panic Attacks

Does this sound like you?

You’re sitting at home, on the couch, watching episode three of that new series you recently started binge watching. Although the show isn’t scary or even stressful at all, you suddenly feel your heart start to race. The realization that your heart is racing worries you, so you begin to think that you may be having a heart attack. You try to breathe through it, but it feels hard to get enough air. You may feel a little nauseated or dizzy, and your body feels clammy. You’re seconds away from calling emergency services, but then it starts to dissipate and is gone nearly as quickly as it started, leaving you feeling exhausted, scared, and confused.  

Symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Feeling short of breath
  • GI upset
  • Dizziness/lightheadedness
  • Numbness/tingling
  • Fear of dying
  • Feeling detached from the body
  • Chest pain

Panic attacks should always be taken seriously, as should ruling out other medical conditions that may cause similar symptoms. Always consult a healthcare professional if you notice any of those symptoms.

Anxiety Attacks

Or does this one sound more like you?

You wake up in the morning and immediately start thinking about your “to-do” list. You slept in a little, so you already feel behind, plus you have to get the kids to the doctor before your virtual work meeting later in the day (that you feel unprepared for). A little worry is normal for you, you’ve likely even convinced yourself that you work best under pressure, but days like this start to completely overwhelm you. Instead of motivating you to get up and get ready, you feel totally paralyzed. It just seems easier to lay in bed and think about everything you should be doing than to actually get up and do it. You may even find yourself snapping at your partner when they come in with a cup of coffee and try to nicely wake you up.

Symptoms of anxiety attacks include:

  • Excessive worry
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle tension
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability

What Are the Key Differences Between the Two?

First, and most importantly, anxiety attacks are not included in the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM for short). The DSM is the guide that mental health professionals use to diagnose people with a huge variety of mental health conditions. For this reason, anxiety attacks are not something that can be diagnosed, and are considered more of a symptom or behavioral obstacle.

Panic attacks, on the other hand, are diagnosable. While you can’t be officially diagnosed with panic attacks, people who have one or more of them a month are often diagnosed with having panic disorder. 

Another big difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack is the speed and length in which they hit you. Most people with panic attacks feel completely normal before it happens, usually just going about their regular day to day activities, and then are back to normal within half an hour or so, with the actual attack typically only lasting a few minutes at most (although they can be longer and more frequent). Anxiety attacks are a slow build without as high of a peak, and last for far longer.

What Do Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks Have in Common?

Although the two do have important differences, they also have some similarities.

Both types of attacks are what’s known as “upregulating” states. Upregulation is just a scientific term for a chemical process that pushes your body into action. Both panic and anxiety attacks activate the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which triggers our “fight or flight” response. Some researchers have amended that even further to include “freeze,” as well. 

When that response is triggered, your sympathetic nervous system (or SNS) tells your brain to release specific hormones to help, specifically adrenaline and noradrenaline. 

Both can also be managed successfully in nearly every case, with coping mechanisms, therapy, medication, or a combination of all three. Identifying your triggers and working to manage them, especially when dealing with anxiety attacks, is essential.

Developing Healthy Coping Mechanisms

We talk a lot about coping mechanisms, but that is because they are an extremely important key to unlocking the ability to better manage your mental health.

Ground Yourself in Reality

A great coping mechanism when panic or anxiety strikes is learning to be able to ground yourself back into reality. When that heart starts pumping and you feel like you want to run directly out of the room, having that ability to step back and breathe can be just the thing that you need to calm you down.

There is a quick, easy trick that you can practice ahead of time, and put into practice when you’re feeling your anxiety start to rise. You can also combine this with using a PYM Mood Chew, to further help calm feelings of overwhelm.*

To start with, when an attack strikes, shift your focus to the world around you. Some people choose to close their eyes and feel it, while others find looking around the room a helpful way to change their perspective. 

Start with paying attention to one thing that is real. This can be the chair that you’re sitting on, the color of the wall, a smell in the air… just pick one thing and focus on all of its details. How does it feel? What does it look like?

Once you’ve taken in all of those details, choose something else and do the same thing. Repeat this a few times, making a mental note of all of the small, seemingly insignificant details of that object. 

Once you’re done, bring your focus briefly back onto your anxiety. Remind yourself that it is not a tangible thing… you can’t touch it, see it, feel it. The chair is real, the way you’re feeling right now is not.

Walk It Off

Instead of making a break for it, when you’re really starting to feel anxious, try exercise. Even a quick walk or a trip to the gym can help you put the focus back on the physical and gives you an outlet for all of those feelings, both physical and mental.

Exercise has long been suggested by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) to help with stress and anxiety. Some studies have shown that even a ten-minute walk can not only reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, but also provide positive mental health effects that can last for hours afterward.

Practice Controlled Breathing

Because so much of panic and anxiety is related to a physical response that your body has, it can also be stopped by taking control of your body back. Breathing is a great way to do this.

When you’re in the middle of an attack, your breathing is naturally more shallow. Not only is this an ineffective way to get oxygen into your system, it also can lead to hyperventilation. The next time you feel panic start to creep up, take a big, deep breathe in through your nose for four counts. Once you’ve counted to four, hold that breathe for another count. Then, purse your lips together like you’re trying to whistle and breathe all of that air back out, this time for six counts. Once you reach six, hold for another count, then repeat. 

Think of controlled breathing like a hack for your nervous system.

This is also a helpful technique to try when combined with meditation. Meditation, especially when practiced over time, helps you to be more mindful of both your breathing and the physical world. It also helps you to take a step back from your thoughts and realize that everything passes, even anxiety. When you practice meditation, you also naturally learn controlled breathing, so it becomes easier to put it into practice when you’re experiencing panic or anxiety attacks. It’s great even for people who don’t live with anxiety.

In Conclusion…

Whether you’re having a full panic attack or just feel overwhelmed with anxiety, knowing the difference between the two, and learning how to best cope with each, can help you reclaim your power and take your life back. 

*FDA Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.


Meditation | Psychology Today