What Is the Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks?

May 7th 2016

Although the triggers, or in the case of panic attacks, the lack of triggers, are very different across types of anxiety disorders, the symptoms often overlap. Another overlap occurs with how many patients respond to their experience of these disorders; they respond by falling into abuse of alcohol or other mind-altering substances. Although many anxiety or panic attack sufferers do not seek help or may not even realize help is available, all these disorders are treatable by mental health professionals.

Panic Attacks

A panic attack often has a much more pronounced physical component to it than an episode of generalized or social anxiety. In fact, someone suffering a panic attack might even think he is having a heart attack because the physical symptoms of shortness of breath, heart palpitations or dizziness might be so strong. Panic attack symptoms often appear with no obvious trigger and come on with great intensity. Other panic attack symptoms can include trembling, chest pain, a sudden fear of dying, the feeling of choking or nausea.

Many people experiencing their first panic attack do not attribute it to any sort of anxiety at all, believing their symptoms indicate an actual physical emergency. Panic attacks, however, can lead to anticipatory anxiety, with the sufferer constantly aware the next attack could arrive at any time.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety attacks are often triggered by actual stressors that can range from fear of riding a roller coaster to having insufficient money to pay bills. If the stressor is removed, the anxiety attack stops, something that does not occur with panic attacks. Anxiety typically does not manifest with the suddenness or severity of a panic attack; instead, it tends to increase slowly over time.

While generalized anxiety disorder symptoms overlap panic attack symptoms somewhat, anxiety symptoms tend to be less dramatic. Typical anxiety symptoms include muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, irritability, increased heart rate and shortness of breath.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder falls somewhat between the typical manifestations of panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder. While social anxiety disorder tends to come on suddenly and often dramatically, as do panic attacks, it has definable triggers similar to generalized anxiety disorder. These triggers include having to interact with unfamiliar people, give a public presentation, confront other people or be singled out in any way.


Anxiety disorders and panic attacks often seem similar in their symptoms and manifestations, but they are typically triggered in very different ways. Though people often throw around the words "panic attack" and "anxiety" as if they were synonymous, for mental health professionals, these are separate disorders with different modes of treatment.

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