When it comes to panic attacks vs anxiety attacks, the terms are often used interchangeably. While there are some similarities in symptoms, they are different experiences and it’s important to be able to distinguish what you’re experiencing as they often have different interventions. Regardless of which one you or your loved ones might be experiencing, panic and anxiety attacks can be incredibly uncomfortable and sometimes terrifying.
Identifying the Difference: Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack
Panic attacks and anxiety attacks might sound similar, but they do come with some differences.
Panic attacks are sudden and intense onset of anxiety symptoms. For many people, panic attacks happen out of nowhere and without a specific trigger to point to. While it can feel like time stands still for the person experiencing a panic attack due to the intense fear, panic attacks typically end or subside in 5 – 20 minutes. A key differentiator in identifying panic attacks vs anxiety attacks is due to the shorter length and higher intensity of panic attack symptoms.
Common symptoms of panic attacks can include, but are not limited to:
- Shortness of breath
- Increased heart rate – many people believe they are experiencing a heart attack
- Chest pain
- Shaking or trembling
- Feeling dizzy or as if you might pass out
- Quick change in body temperature (hot flashed or getting the chills)
- Feeling like you might vomit
- Stomach pain
- Feeling as if you are losing control
- Fear that you might be dying
After experiencing a panic attack, many people feel exhausted physically and emotionally. Due to the toll panic attacks take on the mind and body, you might feel like sleeping after the attack ends. You might find it hard to focus or concentrate for the rest of the day and might generally struggle with feeling detached from yourself and/or your surroundings.
Anxiety attacks typically do not come on as suddenly as panic attacks do. When someone experiences an anxiety attack, there usually is a specific trigger or a period of excessive, prolonged stress. Anxiety attacks tend to be less intense than panic attacks, but that certainly doesn’t mean that the symptoms are not difficult to cope with.
The term anxiety attack is not a diagnosable condition included in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, people who are diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) are likely to experience anxiety attacks.
Common symptoms of anxiety attacks can include, but are not limited to:
- Feelings of nervousness or on edge
- Excessive sweating
- Inability or difficulty concentrating on tasks
- Sleep disturbances like insomnia or frequent waking through the night
- Rapid heart rate and breathing
- Difficulty sitting still
- Feeling irritable
Symptoms of anxiety attacks tend to last much longer than those of panic attacks. Someone struggling with anxiety might notice their symptoms are present for days, weeks, months, or even years.
How to Cope with Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks
When anxiety or panic attacks occur, it can be debilitating. Learning how to manage your symptoms, identifying coping skills, and having trusted loved ones to help you navigate the attacks can be good places to start.
Coping with Panic Attacks
Due to the intensity, it can be extremely challenging to remember your coping skills in the throes of a panic attack. When you are having a panic attack, your body is being flooded with the hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Basically, your body is going into survival mode as it feels it’s in real danger. That feeling of imminent danger is very real in the moment, however, it’s incredibly unlikely that a panic attack will result in death or long term physical or mental damage.
This too shall pass
Do your best to remember that the panic attack will pass. Try coming up with a mantra such as “I’m going to be okay,” or “This will be over soon.” Say these phrases over and over again, while trying to put the focus on the words over your fears. Find what phrase works best to calm you and lean on that when a panic attack arises.
Panic attacks can leave you feeling like you have no control over anything happening to you in the moment. Grounding skills can be helpful in tethering you to the here and now when panic ensues. Breathing exercises and mindfulness can be great resources to utilize when you’re panicking.
A simple breathing exercise you might try is taking a deep breath through your nose, until you feel all the air fill your lungs or until you can slowly count to four. Hold your breath for a second or two, then exhale slowly through your mouth as you feel the air leave your body, again, to a slow count of four.
Call out the panic attack
If you can identify what you’re experiencing is a panic attack, you gain some power over it. This can be hard due to being in fight or flight mode as your brain is focused on keeping you alive, over thinking rationally. If you have a person around you, they may be able to help you identify the panic attack quicker.
Some people like being held during a panic attack and others want to be completely alone, and both are fine. If you prefer to be alone, once you feel able to identify the panic attack, remind yourself over and over again that you’ve been through this before and can get through it again.
Coping with Anxiety Attacks
Coping with anxiety attacks is more about developing anxiety management skills in order to reduce your overall anxiety levels. This can be done in various ways.
Limit alcohol and/or caffeine
Many people find that beverages containing alcohol or caffeine trigger anxiety. If this is something you notice, it might be time to take a break and see if your anxiety decreases naturally. If it does, you’ll know that caffeine and alcohol might be things to stay away from if you’re looking to mitigate anxiety.
Get at least 8 hours of sleep each night
When you aren’t sleeping enough or not sleeping well, emotions can become dysregulated and lead to heightened anxiety. If your anxiety prevents you from sleeping, activities like meditation, a hot shower or bath, or using Lavender essential oils can hopefully help you relax enough to sleep.
Ask for help from loved ones and professionals
If your anxiety levels are becoming unmanageable, who are the people in your life you can lean on? Do you have friends who can spend time with you while you’re anxious? Maybe it would be helpful to join an anxiety support group so you can connect with other going through similar struggles.
It also never hurts to seek out mental health care via a professional who specializes in mental health conditions such as anxiety and panic disorders. They can help you develop a customized treatment plan to help you manage and cope with your symptoms.