To many people, the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” are synonymous. For instance, both bear associations with rapid heart rates and shortness of breath. However, despite their apparent similarities, they are not technically the same. Whether someone is experiencing an anxiety attack vs. panic attack depends on numerous factors, including their symptoms, onset, and duration.
Knowing the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks is crucial to getting the proper treatment. Panic attacks may require a unique approach to short-term coping mechanisms. On the other hand, recurring anxiety can indicate a deeper issue in need of adequate long-term care.
Luckily, in either case, specialized help exists. But first, to know which treatment approach you would benefit from the most, we need to discuss the main differences between an anxiety attack vs. panic attack.
What Is a Panic Attack?
To learn the differences between an anxiety attack vs. panic attack, one must first understand what comprises each. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), defines a panic attack as “a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort, in which symptoms developed abruptly and reached a peak within 10 minutes.”
The panic attack symptoms acknowledged by the DSM-5 include:
- Sense of looming danger or doom
- Elevated heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Nausea or abdominal pain
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Derealization (feelings of unreality)
- Depersonalization (feeling detached from one’s own self)
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Hot flashes or chills
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of dying
An individual only needs to meet four of the above symptoms for their experience to be diagnosed as a panic attack. Moreover, if someone has more than one panic attack on a monthly basis, they may also receive a diagnosis for panic disorder.
What Is an Anxiety Attack?
Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks are not covered in the DSM-5. Instead, anxiety appears as a symptom to numerous other mental illnesses, especially anxiety disorders. One may be able to deduce as much from the name alone, but it remains an important distinction to keep in mind. This is especially true when considering whether someone experiences an anxiety attack vs. panic attack.
That being said, anxiety attacks do exist on a more colloquial level. Individuals with anxiety disorders may experience acute episodes of heightened distress, which they then refer to as “anxiety attacks.” These episodes cannot be pinned down as accurately as panic attacks due to the way the DSM-5 addresses anxiety. However, enough people experience them for observable patterns to have emerged.
Using that data, we can say that common symptoms of anxiety attacks include:
- Feelings of worry, stress, or fear
- Increased heart rate
- Chest pain
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nausea or gastrointestinal problems
- Muscle aches or tension
As you may notice, many symptoms of anxiety attacks overlap with those of panic attacks. This is the main reason why the line between an anxiety attack vs. panic attack is so blurred. To define it more clearly, someone must assess their symptoms under a more specific lens.
Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack
A simplified version of the anxiety attack vs. panic attack question may suggest that a panic attack is a more intense version of an anxiety attack. To some extent, this mindset holds merit. Since they share so many symptoms, one of the easiest differences to pick out is the severity of someone’s experience.
However, there are more key differences between an anxiety attack and panic attack to note as well. Namely, the onset and duration of someone’s symptoms can help them determine whether they are experiencing an anxiety attack vs. panic attack.
First, symptoms of anxiety attacks and panic attacks manifest at different speeds. Panic attacks may feel as though they come “out of nowhere” due to how quickly they can take over someone’s day. Conversely, anxiety attacks may build up and linger over the course of several hours or days.
Instead of the speed, another lens through which to consider the onset of someone’s symptoms involves the cause. Anxiety attacks often occur in response to some form of emotional trigger. Triggers may tie into past trauma, involve high stakes or extreme emotions, or relate to specific activities and phobias.
Panic attacks do not always have an identifiable cause. Someone may be able to recognize a specific trigger, but it is not a requirement or definitive characteristic of panic attacks. The lack of an obvious cause contributes to the feeling that panic attacks come “out of nowhere,” as mentioned previously.
Finally, the duration of someone’s symptoms can help determine whether they are having an anxiety attack vs. panic attack. As stated by the DSM-5, panic attacks typically peak within 10 minutes. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, exhibit a much more gradual build-up of symptoms. They can be fairly quick, but it is also normal for them to last for days or even weeks.
Key Differences Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks
In short, the question of whether someone is having an anxiety attack vs. panic attack can typically be answered by assessing the following:
- Symptoms. On average, symptoms of anxiety attacks are milder than those of panic attacks.
- Onset. Anxiety attacks build up slowly, whereas panic attacks manifest very suddenly.
- Cause. Most anxiety attacks occur in response to a specific stressor, but panic attacks may or may not have a particular trigger.
- Duration. Anxiety attacks can persist for several weeks. Most panic attacks only last a few minutes.
Am I Having a Heart Attack?
While many individuals struggle to identify the differences between an anxiety attack vs. panic attack, a smaller percentage may worry about a third potential contender: a heart attack. This is especially true for those who experience panic attacks and the chest pain associated with them, as chest pain is also linked to heart attacks.
When someone is in the middle of a panic attack, the last thing they need is the added stress of wondering if they’re actually having a heart attack. Fortunately, there are a few key differences to keep in mind.
While they do share certain physical symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath, other symptoms do not overlap. For example, someone experiencing a heart attack may also encounter acute pain in their jaw, neck, or back. Shoulder and arm pain are also common signs of a heart attack.
In addition, heart attacks lack many of the emotional and mental symptoms of panic attacks. Someone having a heart attack typically does not feel an overwhelming sense of doom. Similarly, their experience is not characterized by intense fear or feeling as though they have no control.
Treatment for Panic Attacks and Anxiety Disorders
As someone settles their anxiety attack vs. panic attack question, new inquiries may rise in its place: How are these conditions treated? Where can I go to get help? Are panic attacks treated differently than anxiety attacks?
The National Institute of Mental Health recommends a combination of treatment options for both anxiety and panic disorders. The most popular options involve an assortment of psychotherapies (or talk therapies) as well as medications.
Because they are two different conditions, some of the finer details of treatment will change depending on whether someone experiences anxiety attacks or panic attacks. For instance, someone with an anxiety disorder may focus more on resolving the underlying cause of their long-term anxiety. Someone with a panic disorder may prioritize learning how to cope with their panic attacks and relax their mind whenever they occur.
Inpatient Treatment for Anxiety and Panic Disorders
No matter where your experiences fall in the anxiety attack vs. panic attack question, you can get help for your symptoms. For a comprehensive treatment plan that utilizes all the most effective treatment options, consider an adult mental health program. This type of inpatient treatment provides a high level of care for those who regularly fight either anxiety or panic attacks.
Residential treatment for panic and anxiety disorders includes evidence-based treatment options such as:
- Crisis evaluation and psychiatric screenings
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Medication evaluation and management
- Group therapy
- Recreational therapy
- Family education
- Links to community-based resources and support groups
At Port St. Lucie Hospital, patients work with a team of licensed physicians and mental health specialists to develop an individualized treatment plan. Even though anxiety and panic disorders may benefit from similar treatment options, they are still two separate conditions and should be treated as such. Thus, our effective treatment plans take into account everyone’s unique situation.
If you still aren’t certain whether you’ve had an anxiety attack vs. panic attack, Port St. Lucie Hospital can help. Our medical professionals are equipped to determine whether someone is experiencing an anxiety attack vs. panic attack. Furthermore, they know how to treat both. Port St. Lucie Hospital can provide short- and long-term relief for individuals with anxiety and panic disorders.
Mental Health Treatment in Port St. Lucie, Florida
Port St. Lucie Hospital is a behavioral health treatment center that helps adults with psychiatric disorders. Our services not only help patients differentiate between an anxiety attack vs. panic attack, but teach them vital coping skills as well.
We treat every patient with only the highest levels of compassion and respect. Our approach to mental health treatment emphasizes positivity, growth, and self-esteem. When someone trusts us with their mental health, we repay them with our full dedication.
To find out more about the differences between an anxiety attack vs. panic attack, call our admissions team at (772) 238-7734. If you need more time to organize your questions, consider filling out a confidential contact form instead.
Finally, remember that this only marks the beginning of your journey to heal, learn, and grow. We at Port St. Lucie Hospital would love to continue this conversation with you. If you’re ready to open the door to recovery, please don’t hesitate to reach out today.