Defining Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks

The concepts of panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often used interchangeably to refer to panic attacks. However, we might consider panic attacks as a specific type of manifestation of anxiety disorders and differentiate between the two.

Panic attacks are periods of intense fear that appear suddenly and have a limited duration. They are characterized by a high intensity of various symptoms, and may feel like a heart attack or a sudden onset of madness due to the way these symptoms are experienced.

What might be called anxiety attacks usually have a lower intensity, but tend to last longer. Anxiety attacks are times when we experience a disproportionately high state of anxiety in response to an external or internal situation, that makes us feel worried or nervous outside of what would be expected. For instance, most people would react with appropriate anxiety to the news that they're being evaluated at work with a possible big impact on their job situation. However, most people would not react with lasting anxiety if they accidentally said something silly in a conversation.
In order to better understand the differences between these two concepts, we will examine the symptoms of each in the next section.

What are the symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety attacks?

Panic attacks are characterized by a specific set of symptoms that appear very intensely, last for a short period of time, and usually appear suddenly. Panic attacks might be triggered by a specific situation, but they can occur seemingly with no trigger too. They usually peak at around 10 minutes.

The symptoms of panic attacks, as seen in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), one of the most important mental health manuals, are as follows. During a panic attack, you might experience:

  • A feeling that you are going to die
  • A sense of doom and terror
  • A feeling of impending dementia
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness and dizziness
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Sweating
  • A loss of control
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pains or chest pains

These sensations will indicate the presence of a panic attack. A panic attack is difficult to ignore and tends to be very intense, although people might not always identify it as a panic attack. Panic attacks might occur in many people infrequently and unannounced, but when they occur more regularly, they define what is known as panic disorder.

Now, anxiety attacks are not clearly defined in the DSM-5, but can feature in other anxiety disorders. Anxiety attacks will be considered as periods of excessive and disproportionate anxiety that occur in response to an internal situation - like a thought, a belief, a fantasy, or a series of ideas, or an external situation, like a social interaction or an event. Anxiety, in this case, is characterized by:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Worry, nervousness, fear that continues for some time
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Stomach-aches
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rumination (repeating anxiety-inducing thoughts over and over)

Anxiety like this is usually seen as a problem when it is out of proportion in relation to the trigger that caused them distress, and when it occurs often and continues for long periods of time.

What are the causes of anxiety attacks and panic attacks?

Another difference between these two situations lies in the causes of panic and anxiety attacks. Let's consider these.

For panic attacks, it is not clear why they happen exactly, although there are some factors associated with them. The first factor is genetics.

Sufferers of panic attack disorders might have a history of these attacks in the family, but you should also consider the person's temperament and biology that might make them more prone to this reaction.

Another factor that's associated with panic attacks is stress. If a person is under a lot of stress, they might experience panic attacks even in situations that are seemingly unconnected to the source of stress.

Panic attacks are linked to the body's fight-or-flight response. During a dangerous situation, the body prepares to fight or run. This raises the heart rate, speeds up breathing, and so on. However, in a panic attack, this response occurs without danger being present.

Anxiety is also tied with a normal response. Anxiety by itself is a normal way we have to respond to dangerous or challenging situations. Anxiety can make us more alert, encourage us to consider the different outcomes of a situation, prepare more thoroughly for it, and enhance our performance. This happens when anxiety is adaptive and appropriate for the situation. For example, if we have an important meeting the next day, a little bit of anxiety can make us motivated to prepare for it and plan for the problems that might arise.

However, sometimes anxiety can be maladaptive. This happens when:

  • The condition is disrupting your daily life and routine
  • Anxiety is in a frequent or constant state even when it's disproportionate
  • Anxiety makes the person avoid desirable or necessary activities and situations - for example, avoiding going to parties or meeting friends
  • Anxiety affects the person in one or more important areas of their life (relationships, school, work, etc.)

The causes of maladaptive anxiety are not clearly known, but there are factors that contribute to it. Genetics and temperament play a role here, as some people may be biologically more likely to be anxious. Cognitive distortions also influence anxiety, as people who are prone to it might have maladaptive ways of thinking. For example, a person might always expect the worst to happen and feel that every little thing will become a catastrophe. Due to this type of thinking, anxiety becomes a constant presence in the person's life.

What can be done about anxiety attacks and panic attacks?

These two problems have different treatment approaches. For panic attacks, the main treatment is usually medication. Medication can help prevent or alleviate the symptoms. Anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants have been used to treat this problem. A person experiencing a panic attack can take anti-anxiety medication to experience immediate relief. However, panic attacks can also be treated through therapy and relaxation techniques that help reduce stress and better manage stressful situations.

In the case of anxiety, therapy is often the first choice of treatment, although anti-anxiety medication is also frequently used. Therapy can work with the person's thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their anxiety, changing their way of thinking and influencing their emotional states for the better. For anxiety, meditation and relaxation techniques can also be used to help the person feel more relaxed and have more control over their emotions.

Overall, panic attacks and anxiety are both connected to anxiety disorders and can appear in the same person. They have similar causes and can be treated through similar means, like medication and therapy. However, they have different features, different levels of intensity, and have other differences that should be considered. Although they have similar causes, future research may reveal differences that