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Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: The Key Differences

One key factor that distinguishes a panic attack from an anxiety attack is the length of the symptoms such as the time it takes to start and stop. Panic Attacks are ‘passing’ while Anxiety Attacks are ‘always’ is a good ‘trick’ in recalling the differences.

For example, panic attacks last no more than 30 minutes to an hour. Panic attacks (PAs) are characterized by overwhelming surges of fear and discomfort and are one of the most frequently occurring symptoms in psychiatric populations (Allan, 2016).

An Anxiety Attack can last for days, month, even years, with an ‘always’ and constant feeling attached. An Anxiety Attack (2012), listed in The Dictionary of Medical Terms is an ‘acute episode of intense anxiety and feelings of panic, accompanied by symptoms such as palpitations, breathlessness, sweating, gastrointestinal complaints, and feelings of imminent disaster’.

While the ‘always’ and ‘passing’ slogan categorizes the physiological differences such as time span, the disorders both produce similar feeling symptoms.  The terminology of ‘passing’ and ‘always’ doesn’t in anyway capture the perpetual agony that they both create. Even if a panic attack is known to pass, an hour of agonizing fear is emotionally and physically draining. One can remind themselves of this during an attack, that this too shall pass, yet it in no way is a predictor of when a sudden onset of the symptoms may occur. This unexpected attack of either kind of ‘panic’ is paralyzing in and of itself, such as wondering if it will occur in the store check out line, at the office meeting, when answering an important call, or even in the middle of the night when trying to sleep.

While this can all be overwhelming and life-altering, it’s important to understand that one isn’t alone in seeking understanding and the managing of the symptoms of anxiety and/or panic attacks. There are steps to take to identify one from the other, as well as any other underlying or involved issues, including treating different anxiety disorders.

We all suffer from stress and anxiety. It’s normal to have the emotion of worry. To have some stress associated with an important event or outcome is natural. The issue is when it directly impacts the quality and living of one’s life in its entirety. If an issue is impeding on one’s quality of life, such as day-to-day routine operations, the traits and treatments must be addressed and appropriately administered. This approach can easily be applied to any type of attack one may be experiencing

It’s important to recognize the differences which allow understanding of what one is experiencing from anxiety disorder or panic attacks.

Anxiety Attack:

An ‘always’ approach to anxiety can also seem glib or overwhelming, yet it’s wise to know that attacks are as unique and individually based as the very person that experiences the attack. As mentioned, Anxiety Attacks are more geared to the person. The symptoms are associated more with the person’s personality and makeup, including experiences that are shown as manifestations in one’s daily life based on individual experiences. The following looks at some traits and details that are often associated with Anxiety Attacks.

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  • Less of an ‘attack’ but an ongoing process.
  • A consistent presence in one’s daily functioning, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • Anxiety attacks are often associated with anxiety disorders such as general anxiety disorder known as ‘GAD’.
  • Feeling of dread and danger – An ongoing pattern of thoughts and feelings that something is about to happen that will be dangerous, harmful and/or life-altering.
  • Restless –Inability to find calm, ease and constant comfort.
  • Irritable – An outburst of emotions or even a snippy response can be due to an emotional state of anxiety and anxiety attacks.
  • Jumpy/Tense – Feeling on edge, being scared and repetitively worried are all signs of an anxiety attack.
  • Mind ‘Blanks’ – A feeling of ‘fuzzy brain’ and even complete loss of the train of thoughts are common.
  • Can’t concentrate – Unable to focus, staring at something yet being unable to read it, and looking at someone talking yet not processing their words are signs of lack of concentration which are a symptom.
  • Worried for the worst – Fear is a major and ongoing struggle. Staying positive is difficult when the fear of what can go wrong, may go wrong, has gone before, or might go wrong become predominant thoughts.
  • So tired/fatigued – It can be emotionally and physically draining to feel, process, handle and overcome an abundant of emotions, especially those with such an array of fear, dread, worry, and more attached to anxiety attacks. The fearful thoughts are also hindering on one’s ability to rest and find any relaxation.
  • Ongoing/on edge – It can be exhausting to experience such emotions on an ongoing and consistent basis. It keeps one on edge, fatigued, disoriented and more.
  • Thinking/thoughts – The thinking not only impacts the thoughts that manifest the anxiety attack but the knowledge and awareness that the anxiety attacks are associated with the individual thoughts are then, in turn, contributing to more anxiety accompanied thinking. It can become a vicious cycle that therefore becomes consistent.
  • Consistent/Persistent – We have reached the area of ‘always’. This is where we see how the anxiety attacks, along with all the symptoms and traits, contribute to the understanding of the persistent label that it is given. There is the constant, ongoing, cycle of anxiety, ‘always’ attentive to the person experiencing it. Yet, it doesn’t have to be ‘always’, in fact, it can be monitored and managed.

Panic Attack:

  • Uncertain certainty – One key and a paralyzing factor is the scary uncertainty that is associated with a panic attack yet the certainty that it could occur at any second.  One does not know the moment or the minute that it will hit nor do they know when it will end. The scary uncertainty can often be calmed by understanding that it isn’t long lasting but instead will pass within a matter of minutes.
  • Sudden Speed – Speed comes in several forms with a panic attack. One is the sudden fast onset of an acute panic attack – another is in the speed of the racing of one’s heart and mind at the moment – another is the sudden dissolution of symptoms, with symptoms often gone within an hour.
  • Fight or Flight – The body is in fear. It is reacting physiologically to the Panic Attack instantly. This can be seen in physical symptoms such as sweating, shortness of breath and shaking.
  • Painful Panic – The panic attack is painful. The brain and body are reacting with a rapid heartbeat. The heart is racing. You have thoughts instantly questioning ‘Is this a heart attack?’! Their chest pains there’s the feeling of choking all the sudden you can’t breathe you feel like you’re dying sensations of suddenly feeling sick to the stomach suddenly hot or even cold begin to occur your body no longer feels in control.
  • Real or Fake – It seems as if the mind is playing tricks on you. The painful symptoms reveal themselves to be nothing more than a false reality. Painful chest and breathing symptoms turn out to be fear and panic. Large questions may be present such as; what is no longer ‘real’, what is ‘real’, do things seem like a dream, is there a sudden detachment from reality? Is a new numbness that is there possibly, or an old numbness that is becoming louder in one’s life?

Treatments And Helpful Tips

There are several approaches to positively altering ones’ life to reduce and improve all the symptoms and stressors of attacks.

For an Anxiety Attack, there are both medical options such as taking medications for the disorder as well as therapy for cognitive changes and healing.

For a Panic Attack, it’s important to stay calm, wait it out, and remind yourself that it will pass. Panic attacks may also be treated with medications and panic-related exercises.

Additional Tips: 

  1. Ensure that a healthy lifestyle is being achieved by developing proper regimens with sleep, eating, and exercise.
  2. Following correct instructions for taking medications and therapeutic exercises.
  3. Incorporating meditation techniques into one’s daily routine is strongly suggested and can be done for free in the comfort of one’s home (office, park, school) at any given time.
  4. Good relationships are key to maintaining clarity and comfort and this can be both personally and professionally. It’s important to nurture, reach out and remain honest with loved and respected associates/allies about any struggles that may be occurring. There is no weakness is reaching out.
  5. Regular interaction with others forces one not to dwell and worry as often. By working diligently, meeting loved ones routinely and even going for a walk in the evening can allow one to interact with others, nature and stimulation in a healthy manner.
  6. Appropriate stimulation is also a notable topic. It’s important to stay engaged, aware and able to talk to others, yet stimulation can also be found in reading a fantastic book, dancing to a favorite song or eating a favorite delicious food. It’s important to take note of how different forms of stimulation affect your anxiety either negatively or positively.
  7. Celebrating is important. Don’t stay in the negative and it becomes comfortable only because it’s familiar. Go out, throw up your hands, smile and celebrate that friend’s promotion, your own milestones being achieved and even strangers sharing their great news. It’s okay to feel okay, shout okay and be okay. Be kind and caring to yourself and enjoy every little thing, and especially the big ones!
  8. Be aware of and address thoughts. Analyze why they are there, are they reflective of reality at that moment, is it simply worry for a hypothetical scenario. Instead re-engage at the moment, in the present reality and focus on what is presently truthful and needing attention. It doesn’t mean don’t worry to pay the bill on time, but it means don’t spend significant amounts of time on what will happen if it isn’t paid.
  9. No one needs to suffer alone. If you or someone else is suffering, you don’t need to be confused, scared or embarrassed. Anxiety and panic issues are overwhelming for the individual, and each case is as unique as the person who is dealing with it.

References

Allan NP, Oglesby ME, Short NA, Schmidt NB. Examining the Panic Attack Specifier in Social Anxiety Disorder. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. 2016;45:177-181.

Anxiety Attack. (2012). In R. Sell, M. A. Rothenberg, & C. F. Chapman, Dictionary of medical terms (6th ed.). Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.

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ReBecca Byrd, Phd Psychology
ReBecca Byrd, Phd Psychology

ReBecca has a background in psychology, spirituality and relationships, with her primary focus being on BDSM behaviors. Her graduate degree in psychology, along with her numerous certifications, such as being a Certified Pastoral Counselor, allow her the luxury of pursuing her passion which is to help others. In her free time, she enjoys frolicking in the water with manatees, living the salt life in Florida and enjoying as many moments with friends and family as possible.

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