Panic Attack vs. Anxiety AttackDec 06, 2022
Have you ever felt really nervous, uneasy, or fearful about something? Were those feelings followed by rapid breathing, nausea, or chest pain?
What you could have been experiencing was a panic attack or anxiety attack. And while these two terms are often used interchangeably because of their similarities, they also have differences.
Knowing their similarities and differences is essential to help manage symptoms and find the treatment option that works best for you.
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What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a feeling of intense fear and anxiety that triggers physical symptoms that come on suddenly and without warning.
Symptoms of a panic attack
Although symptoms are not life-threatening, they can feel scary. They may make you feel like you are having a heart attack or dying, even though there is no real threat.
Common symptoms of a panic attack include:
Fear of dying
Sense of approaching danger
Disorientation or detachment from reality
Feeling dizzy or faint
Attack symptoms usually last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Some panic attacks may last longer or occur back to back, making it difficult to know when one ends, and another begins.
Causes of a panic attack
While panic attacks may come on out of nowhere, they're usually triggered by certain situations or events. It's thought panic attacks can be caused by:
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a traumatic life experience like an accident, sexual assault, abuse, or serving in a war.
An imbalance of chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) in the brain
Diagnosis of panic attacks
Some people experience panic attacks a few times a year, while others experience them a few times a week. You should consult with your healthcare provider if you experience symptoms of an attack, as you may have a panic disorder or another medical condition, like thyroid or heart issues.
To find the correct diagnosis, your doctor may ask about your symptoms, review your medical history, order blood work, and perform a physical and psychological evaluation.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a panic disorder can be diagnosed by three main points:
Recurring, unexpected panic attacks
After at least one attack, experiencing a month (or more) of continuous worry about having another and the effects of a panic attack, or making significant changes in your behavior, such as avoiding situations or places that may trigger an attack.
Ruling out the possibility of drug or other substance use, a medical condition, or another mental health condition as the cause of the panic attacks.
Treatment options for a panic attack
Whether you have a panic disorder or not, untreated panic attacks can adversely affect your health and well-being. Treatment options are available to help manage the frequency and intensity of attacks. These may include psychotherapy, medications, self-help techniques, or a combination of all three.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), also referred to as talk therapy, can help you better understand your symptoms, develop ways to cope with them, identify triggers, and work through past pain.
Certain medicationscan reduce symptoms as well as manage any depression and anxiety you may as well. Several types of prescription drugs have FDA-approved to help with panic attacks and panic disorders, including:
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)- fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva), and sertraline (Zoloft)
Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)- venlafaxine (Effexor XR)
Benzodiazepines-alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin)
Self-help techniques are essential to know when you are experiencing a panic attack. These techniques include:
Breathing exercises - Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, and breathe out slowly and deeply through your mouth.
Close your eyes to focus on your breathing during an attack
Acknowledging and reminding yourself that you are experiencing an attack, you aren't in danger, and this will pass
What is an anxiety attack?
Much like high-functioning anxiety, the DSM doesn't recognize an anxiety attack as a medical condition, making the definition subjective and often used to describe various anxious responses. However, understanding anxiety attacks are critical to seeking treatment and managing symptoms.
One way that an anxiety attack is defined is a sudden and intense episode of worry and anxiety. Some may describe their attack as extreme panic about the future to intense feelings of dread that mimic the criteria for a panic attack.
Symptoms of an anxiety attack
Since experiences of anxiety attacks can differ from person-to-person, so can the symptoms. The most common symptoms of an anxiety attack include:
Feeling lightheaded and dizzy
Unable to relax
Insomnia or other sleep issues
More rapid breathing
Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks tend to build up and can last a few minutes to several days.
Causes of anxiety attacks
There are several different types of anxiety that can cause symptoms of an attack, including
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
Specific phobias-related disorders
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Medication-induced anxiety disorder
In addition, other factors can build up and lead to an anxiety attack, such as:
Family or relationship problems
Stress about national and world events
Separation or divorce
Excessive caffeine consumption
Taking medications that have anxiety as a side effect
A decline in mental or physical function
Receiving a life-altering medical diagnosis
Additionally, certain people have an increased risk of anxiety and anxiety attacks. These risk factors include:
A history of trauma, especially from childhood
Having a shy or reserved personality
Certain health conditions, including problems with the thyroid or heart
Diagnosis of anxiety attacks
As stated above, anxiety attacks are not an official diagnosis. However, seeing your doctor can help pinpoint what kind of anxiety you may have to determine the best treatment plan.
To diagnose anxiety, your doctor will review your symptoms, perform a physical exam, and run blood tests to rule out any medical conditions.
From there, they will most likely refer you to a psychologist or other mental health professional. Your mental health provider can do a psychological evaluation and compare your anxiety symptoms to the DSM- 5 criteria to give you a formal diagnosis.
Treatment options for anxiety
Like panic attacks, anxiety treatment will most likely include a multi-faceted approach. This consists of a combination of talk therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes to successfully manage anxiety and prevent attacks.
Several medications are used to treat anxiety disorders, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, buspirone, antihistamines, and beta-blockers.
The most commonly prescribed medicines for anxiety include:
In addition, increasing self-care, decreasing caffeine intake, practicing good sleep hygiene, exercising every day, reducing screen time, and maintaining a well-balanced diet, are all critical to lowering anxiety symptoms and attacks.
What are the differences between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?
As you can see, there are many resemblances between a panic attack and an anxiety attack. The most significant characteristics that set them apart from one another are differences in symptoms, duration, and how they start.
Both attacks can cause some of the same symptoms. However, a panic attack can have more intense physical and mental sensations.
Anxiety attacks can last for an extended period of time.
On the other hand, a panic attack can come on suddenly and stay for a few minutes to an hour. Panic attacks also peak at around 10 minutes.
Anxiety attacks have no "peak times" but can turn into panic attacks for some.
How they start
An anxiety attack gradually builds up as a response to a specific anxiety, worry, or fear.
A panic attack can happen out of nowhere, due to a trigger, or for no reason at all.
While there are no quick fixes for panic attacks and anxiety attacks, staying informed and getting help are important steps to reduce the number of attacks and manage symptoms.
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