Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: What Is the Difference?

Medically Reviewed By Yalda Safai, MD, MPH
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“Panic attack” and “anxiety attack” are phrases people often use interchangeably. However, even though there are similarities, they are not the same.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) does not recognize anxiety attacks as a diagnosable disorder. However, it does define anxiety as a symptom of many other psychological disorders and defines anxiety disorders as diagnosable conditions.

This article will discuss the differences between a panic attack and anxiety. It will also talk about the symptoms, causes, and treatments for each condition.

What is the difference between a panic attack vs. an anxiety attack?

Female looking to the side
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A panic attack is a sudden onset of intense anxiety, panic, or fear. Anxiety is an emotion that involves worrying thoughts and tension. When anxiety becomes overwhelming and affects your daily life, it becomes an anxiety disorder.

Both panic attacks and anxiety include:

  • worry
  • fear
  • tension
  • physical symptoms, like a racing heart rate

One of the main differences, however, is the onset and amount of time they last. Panic attacks typically last between 5 and 20 minutes. They also tend to come on suddenly, sometimes due to a trigger and sometimes for no apparent reason.

Anxiety can last for months or even years. Anxiety disorders are typically long-term conditions. Some people may only experience one panic attack and never have another one. Other people may experience regular panic attacks, which may mean they have panic disorder.

Panic attacksAnxiety
They are typically due to a trigger, but they can occur for no apparent reason.It is generally a response to a stressor or perceived threat.
The symptoms usually come on suddenly. The feelings and symptoms may build up over time.
The symptoms are typically disruptive and can cause you to have a sense of detachment.The symptoms vary in intensity from mild to severe.
They generally subside and fade out in minutes. The symptoms may remain for long periods of time.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

Panic attacks and anxiety disorders can have common symptoms. One thing that differentiates them is the severity of the symptoms.

Panic attack

Symptoms of a panic attack may include:

Anxiety

If you develop anxiety, along with a persistent and excessive worry in nonthreatening situations, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • feeling dread or apprehension
  • feeling jumpy or tense
  • experiencing irritability or restlessness
  • anticipating the worst
  • watching for signs of danger
  • pounding or racing heart
  • having shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • experiencing tremors and twitches
  • having headache, fatigue, or insomnia
  • urinating too often, upset stomach, or diarrhea

What causes panic attacks and anxiety attacks?

Experts do not yet know exactly why some people experience panic disorder, panic attacks, or anxiety disorders. However, genetics and environmental factors may play a key role in the development of the conditions.

Risk factors

Certain factors may put you at a higher risk of developing either or both of these conditions. These risk factors include:

  • family history of anxiety or panic disorder
  • imbalance of certain brain chemicals
  • overactivity of certain brain areas
  • traumatic or stressful event or a history of trauma
  • experience with a long-term, painful condition
  • history of drug or alcohol misuse

While these factors may put you at a higher risk of developing panic attacks, panic disorder, or anxiety disorders, they do not guarantee you will develop a disorder. Some people who develop one or more than one of these conditions do so for no apparent reason.

How do doctors treat panic attacks and anxiety attacks?

The treatments for panic disorder and anxiety disorders are basically the same. They include:

Generally, a combination of therapy and medication is the most effective treatment. Work closely with your doctor and mental health professional to find the most suitable treatment for your circumstances.

What are self-help tips for managing panic attacks and anxiety attacks?

There are many ways you can help yourself manage your panic attacks and anxiety. You can try these:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking, if possible.
  • Reduce your caffeine intake.
  • Connect with a virtual or in-person support group.
  • Use relaxation techniques to calm yourself, such as the techniques below.
  • Try complementary therapies like:
    • yoga
    • aromatherapy
    • massage
    • Pilates

Techniques for panic attacks

Certain breathing techniques may help ease the symptoms of your panic attack. Try this one:

  1. Breathe in slowly through your nose, deeply and gently.
  2. Breathe out through your mouth, slowly and gently.
  3. Count from 1–5 on each intake and each outtake of breath.
  4. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.

Other ways you can help yourself through a panic attack include:

  • Try not to fight it.
  • Stay right where you are, if you can.
  • Tell yourself that the attack will pass.
  • Remind yourself it is not life threatening.
  • Focus on peaceful and relaxing images.

Summary

“Panic attack” and “anxiety attack” are phrases that people often use interchangeably. However, they are different conditions.

Anxiety attacks are not a diagnosable condition. Anxiety is often a symptom of other psychological conditions and is the main component of anxiety disorders.

Panic attacks are sudden onsets of anxiety, tension, and fear. They typically only last for 5–20 minutes. Some people may experience one panic attack and never experience another one. Other people may experience regular panic attacks that affect their day-to-day lives. This may mean they have panic disorder.

Contact your doctor or mental health professional if you experience anxiety that affects your daily life or panic attacks. They can recommend treatment that can help you manage your symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: Yalda Safai, MD, MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 15
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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