A panic attack and an anxiety attack are both similar in that they are severe anxiety symptoms, are episodic, and have the feeling of fear, nervousness, dread, or terror. They are different in that an anxiety attack is usually triggered by a stressor. For instance, if you have stage fright, you might have an anxiety attack right before the speech, or if you are walking in the dark and hear footsteps, then you might get an anxiety attack. You might also have an anxiety attack when you receive bad news or learn of something which is disturbing. During an anxiety attack, you may feel nervous, fearful, have racing heart beat, feel short of breath, or have nausea/vomiting. But this does not usually last for very long, and when the stressor goes away, so does the anxiety attack. Anxiety attacks can occur with any anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, specific phobia, post traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder.
In contrast, a panic attack can occur randomly, out of the blue, and does not require a stressor. It is unpredictable, and that makes people who have panic attacks also have anticipatory anxiety, which is worrying about the next time a panic attack will occur. The worry about having a future panic attack may lead to the person to avoid places and become homebound, for fear of getting a panic attack at certain places and not receiving help. This is known as agoraphobia, and can be quite debilitating due to the avoidant behaviors, which may cause the person to lose their job, do poorly in school, or disrupt their relationships. Panic attacks are characterized by terror, extreme fear, fear of dying or losing control, rapid heart beat, chest pains, shortness of breath, tingling in the extremities, dizziness, and nausea. Panic attacks can last for several minutes, and can occur daily, and sometimes multiple times per day. Panic attacks only occur with panic disorder. Although panic attacks can be unprovoked, they can also be triggered by stressors. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, are always triggered, and do not occur randomly/out of the blue.
It’s important to tell the difference between anxiety attacks and panic attacks. Anxiety attacks are usually handled by addressing the stressor/trigger and addressing the underlying anxiety disorder. The anxiety disorder can be treated by instituting psychotherapy, relaxation, self-help, natural supplements, or medications (if the symptoms are severe). Panic attacks are handled by addressing the avoidant behaviors, and by addressing the thoughts you may have that make the panic attacks worse, as any change in the body like increased heart rate or chest pain may be interpreted by you as experiencing a heart attack. And when you avoid situations where you fear having a panic attack, it maintains the belief that you indeed had a heart attack. The avoidance and belief that you had a heart attack only serves to bring on more panic attacks with increasing intensity. And anticipating the next panic attack only serves to maintain (or worsen) this vicious negative cycle. Panic attacks are also handled by addressing the underlying panic disorder, which responds to psychotherapy, visualization/relaxation, self-help, natural supplements, or medications (if the symptoms are severe).
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