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Panic Attack versus Anxiety Attack: Understanding the Difference and How to Cope

close-up of panicked eyes

If you have ever experienced a sudden surge of overwhelming fear or anxiety, you may have wondered if you were having a panic attack or an anxiety attack. While “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Understanding the difference between the two types of episodes and knowing how to cope with them can be beneficial in managing your mental health.

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden and intense episode of extreme fear or discomfort that peaks within a few minutes and is accompanied by physical and emotional symptoms. These episodes can be debilitating and distressing; they often feel like they come out of the blue without any apparent trigger. Panic attacks are classified as a type of anxiety disorder. They can be a standalone condition or occur as part of another mental health disorder, such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

The symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person, but they often include a combination of the following symptoms:


  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Chills or hot flashes


  • Intense fear or terror
  • Feelings of impending doom or death
  • Extreme worry or apprehension
  • Feeling out of control or detached from reality
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling restless


  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling like you’re in a dream-like state
  • Confusion

These symptoms can be severe and distressing, and they may prompt individuals to seek medical attention or go to the emergency room, believing they are experiencing a medical emergency.

Causes of Panic Attacks

The exact cause of panic attacks is not fully understood, but several factors are believed to contribute to their development. These may include:

  • Genetics: Family history of panic attacks or other anxiety disorders may increase the risk of experiencing panic attacks.
  • Neurotransmitter Imbalance: Imbalances in serotonin and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters responsible for regulating mood and stress levels, may be involved in the development of panic attacks.
  • Environmental Triggers: Stressful life events, traumatic experiences, and chronic stress may trigger panic attacks in susceptible individuals.
  • Biological Factors: Some medical conditions, such as thyroid disorders or cardiovascular conditions, may increase the risk of experiencing panic attacks.

Coping Strategies for Panic Attacks

Coping strategies that can help you manage and reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks include:

  • Deep Breathing: Practice slow, deep breathing to help regulate your breathing and reduce physical symptoms of panic, such as rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath.
  • Grounding Techniques: Can help reduce feelings of detachment or disorientation by focusing on the present moment, such as by touching or holding onto objects or using specific exercises.
  • Lifestyle Changes: Incorporate healthy lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and a balanced diet, to support your overall mental and physical well-being.
  • Avoid Triggers: Identify and avoid triggers that may provoke panic attacks, such as certain situations, substances, or activities that exacerbate your symptoms.
  • Therapy: Different types of treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, or relaxation techniques, may be beneficial in managing panic attacks.

Everyone’s experience with panic attacks varies. It may take time to discover the best coping strategies for you.

What is an Anxiety Attack?

An anxiety attack, on the other hand, is not a recognized clinical term. It is often used to describe a sudden onset of intense anxiety or an acute episode of heightened anxiety symptoms. Anxiety is a common emotion. Everyone experiences it to some extent. An anxiety attack is usually more intense and overwhelming. It usually lasts for a shorter period than a panic attack.

Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack

The symptoms of an anxiety attack can vary widely from person to person, but they may include:

  • Intense worry or fear
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Feeling on edge or constantly vigilant
  • Racing or intrusive thoughts
  • Muscle tension or headaches
  • Nausea or stomach distress
  • Sweating or trembling
  • Changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia or disturbed sleep

Anxiety attacks may be triggered by specific situations or stressors. They can also be a symptom of an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Causes of Anxiety Attacks

The exact causes of anxiety attacks are not fully understood, but similar to panic attacks, there are several factors that may contribute to their occurrence, including:

  • Genetic: A family history of anxiety disorders may increase the risk of experiencing anxiety attacks.
  • Environmental: High levels of stress, traumatic events, or chronic stress may trigger anxiety attacks in susceptible individuals.
  • Cognitive: Negative thought patterns or cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing or overgeneralizing, may contribute to the development of anxiety attacks.
  • Neurotransmitter Imbalance: Imbalances in certain neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), have been implicated in the development of anxiety symptoms.
  • Medical Conditions: Certain conditions, such as thyroid disorders, cardiovascular conditions, or respiratory conditions, may also trigger anxiety attacks.
  • Substance Use: Substance abuse or withdrawal from certain substances, such as alcohol, caffeine, or illicit drugs, may contribute to the occurrence of anxiety attacks.
  • Psychological: Underlying psychological factors, such as unresolved trauma, unresolved conflicts, or unresolved grief, may also play a role in the development of anxiety attacks.

Managing Anxiety Attacks

Like panic attacks, managing anxiety attacks may require a comprehensive approach that addresses the underlying causes and triggers. Here are some strategies that may help:

  • Relaxation Techniques: Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation, can help calm the mind and body during an anxiety attack.
  • Stress Management: Developing effective stress management strategies, such as time management, setting boundaries, and practicing self-care, can help reduce stress levels and prevent anxiety attacks.
  • Therapy: Different types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, or relaxation techniques, may be beneficial in managing anxiety attacks. A qualified therapist can help develop coping strategies, identify triggers, and address underlying psychological factors.
  • Self-Care: Practicing self-care, such as engaging in enjoyable activities, setting boundaries, good sleep hygiene, and managing stress can help support mental health and manage anxiety attacks.

According to a study, one month of yoga is an effective adjuvant therapy for anxiety and panic disorder patients. Yoga acted by lowering tonic anxiety and sympathetic activity.

Take Away – Anxiety or Panic

In conclusion, while panic attacks and anxiety attacks share some similarities, they are distinct experiences with their own unique characteristics. Panic attacks are sudden and intense episodes of fear or discomfort that may be accompanied by physical symptoms, while anxiety attacks are acute episodes of heightened anxiety that may be triggered by specific situations or stressors. Research suggests that “panic attacks in the context of Panic Disorder are more severe than those in social anxiety, and this may be driven by cognitive disturbances during those attacks.” It’s essential to seek professional help if you are experiencing panic attacks or anxiety attacks that interfere with your daily life or causing significant distress.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Helen Kaminski – As an advocate and writer focusing on mental health, I use my personal experiences and academic knowledge to educate and inspire others through my work in person and online. In my free time, I love yoga, nature walks, reading, volunteering at an animal shelter, and watching movies. As a lead editor on therapyhelpers.com, my writing aims to break down mental health stigma and help others feel understood.

Photo by  samer daboul: https://www.pexels.com/photo/extreme-close-up-photo-of-frightened-eyes-4178738/

May Is Mental Health Month 2023

"Look Around, Look Within"

May is Mental Health Month, a time to spread public awareness and education about mental health disorders and reflect on the impact of mental illness on individuals and their families.

The theme of this year's Mental Health Month is to take some time to "Look Around, Look Within." The goal this May is to challenge yourself to examine your world and how it can affect your overall mental health – from your neighborhood to genetics, many factors come into play when it comes to mental health.

It is also a time to recognize and commit to changing the racial and economic inequities in our healthcare system, particularly with respect to mental health.

www.rtor.org and Laurel House are committed to the advancement of racial equity and social justice and to making mental health services accessible to all.

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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