Here’s How to Tell the Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks

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Though many people use the terms interchangeably, the experience of anxiety is not the same as a panic attack, though they can be related. Recognizing the difference can be helpful in determining how to manage your experience, or learning how to support someone else experiencing either anxiety symptoms and/or panic attacks.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotional state, brought on by fear or worry, that can help keep us alert and safe from real danger. When a person is experiencing anxiety, their sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, which can lead to physical symptoms and responses. Some of the emotional and physical symptoms associated with anxiety are:

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  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue
  • Uncontrolled feelings of worry
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating

Anxiety can be brought on as a response to life events that are nerve-wracking, like job interviews, financial stressors, and difficult conversations. However, sometimes a person might experience this emotional state more generally, as opposed to it stemming from a particular trigger. In other cases, an anxiety response might become more pronounced and begin to disrupt other parts of a person’s life. Some of the common triggers that can lead to uncontrolled anxiety include:

  • A phobia, or intense fear, of a particular thing, such as a specific animal or insect, needles, or blood.
  • A phobia, or intense fear, of a particular situation, such as heights, social interactions, small spaces, or flying.
  • Separation from loved ones.

What Is a Panic Attack?

Feelings of anxiety can be increased for days or months at a time. In some cases, they can be classified as chronic. A panic attack, on the other hand, typically comes on suddenly and only lasts for minutes (or, at the most, hours) at a time. When a person has a panic attack, they are experiencing intense anxiety and may exhibit the following symptoms:

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  • Increased heart rate or palpitations
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea or stomach pain
  • Weakness or trembling

As this list shows, a panic attack often has a much more pronounced physical component to it than an episode of generalized anxiety. Panic attack symptoms can be related to a specific event — or they can appear without an obvious trigger. Because the physical symptoms are so similar, someone experiencing a panic attack might think they are having a heart attack. Other panic attack symptoms may include a sense of impending doom or feeling of dying, which can compound the fear that a cardiac emergency is occurring.

Identifying Anxiety and Panic Disorders

With general anxiety experiences or panic attacks, it is not uncommon to experience anticipatory anxiety, or a fear of future anxiety or panic. When either anxiety symptoms or the fear of experiencing anxiety begins to interfere with life plans, a healthcare professional may diagnose an anxiety disorder. These are some of the diagnoses related to anxiety that are included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):

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  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Specific Phobia
  • Panic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks, it is important to consult with a mental health professional to help determine contributing factors and discuss possible treatment options. There are many types of treatment that may be appropriate to pursue depending upon how said anxiety presents.

Medical content reviewed by Madeline Hubbard, RN, BSN.

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