Guides

Dec 31 2021

How To Differentiate Between Anxiety and a Panic Attack

Dedoyin Ajayi

Dedoyin Ajayi

Author

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between anxiety and a panic attack.  Because of their similarities, people often use the terms interchangeably. Well, although both of them cause physical and emotional symptoms, anxiety is usually more persistent while a panic attack lasts for a short while. 

In this article, you’ll learn what anxiety and panic attacks are, their causes, and how to tell them apart. Let’s dive in! 

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is an intense feeling of fear, discomfort, and worry. It’s the brain’s way of alerting the body about imminent danger; whether real or perceived. 

When we’re exposed to potential danger, our brain interprets it to be more dangerous than it really is, causing anxiety. However, when laced with persistent worry and fear, anxiety can become intense.

Anxiety can be a result of worrying about everyday activities like getting late to work, getting robbed on the bus, or bigger events like illness or death. 

Symptoms Of Anxiety

Not everyone would experience the same symptoms when they are experiencing a bout of anxiety. Here are common physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety:

  • Restlessness
  • Having feelings of impending danger or catastrophe
  • Trouble concentrating on anything else except the cause of worry
  • Hyperventilation
  • Heart racing
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • An urge to avoid things that trigger worry
  • Insomnia
  • Gastrointestinal problems (urge to use the restroom.)
  • Excessive sweating

Causes Of Anxiety

Anxiety can be caused by a variety of things or situations. They include a fear of the unknown, tension, extreme stress, constant worrying, genetics, and medical conditions like diabetes or heart disease. 

What Is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear that triggers physical reactions when there is no real threat. Unlike anxiety episodes, panic attacks occur suddenly, with or without a trigger. 

Panic attacks are more severe than anxiety as they happen without any warning. Plus, they’re quite rude! Panic attacks can happen in the most unlikely places or situations, like in the middle of a date or during a bath. However, they last for a short time. 

Symptoms Of A Panic Attack

If you are experiencing a panic attack, you are likely to experience some of these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Chest pain
  • Palpitations (racing heartbeat)
  • Dizziness/ Lightheadedness
  • Choking
  • Nausea
  • Fear of dying
  • A feeling of detachment from reality
  • Chills or hot flashes

Causes Of Panic Attacks

There’s no known cause for panic attacks. That’s because the brain and nervous system are responsible for how it deals with fear, anxiety, and worry. But, you have a greater risk of experiencing panic attacks if:

  • Your family has a history of panic disorders
  • You have mental health issues like anxiety disorders and depression
  • You abuse (or are addicted to) drugs and alcohol
  • You’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms from quitting alcohol or drugs
  • You have complex health issues that make you worry more than usual
  • You come across your phobias
  • You experience acute and chronic pain
  • You experience a stressful life event like a relationship conflict, relocation, or work stress.
  • You’re in social gatherings (for people with social anxiety)

Differences Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks

  1. A panic attack is a sudden and intense feeling of fear or discomfort that can be overwhelming. It’s usually accompanied by physical and emotional symptoms.
  2. Anxiety, on the other hand, intensifies over some time and is caused by excessive worry about the potential danger which might be real or just perceived. 
  3. Everyone experiences anxiety, although for some people, it can feel intense and unbearable. But, not everyone experiences or will experience panic attacks. They are intense and usually unexpected.
  4. Also, anxiety usually builds up, so the signs are easy to spot. Panic attacks, on the other hand, are swift, sudden, and uncontrollable. 
  5. The major difference between a panic attack and anxiety is the duration of each. Typically, a panic attack is short-lived and usually peaks at around 5-20 minutes, but anxiety can last for months. 
  6. Moreso, anxiety is caused by triggers; it usually builds up. But, panic attacks may or may not be caused by triggers.
  7. Anxiety can be mild, moderate, or severe but panic attacks are usually severe and their symptoms are disruptive. 

Risk Factors

Risk factors are things that increase your chances of developing an ailment. For anxiety and panic attacks, the risk factors are: 

  • Having other mental health disorders, like depression 
  • Consuming alcohol or drugs
  • Experiencing a stressful life event, like financial issues, the death of a loved one, or problems at work
  • Having a chronic health condition
  • Having family members who also experience anxiety or panic disorders
  • Experiencing trauma, either as a child or as an adult
  • Having an anxious personality

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you think you experience any of the symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks, you should reach out to a mental health professional for a proper diagnosis of panic attacks, panic disorders, anxiety disorders, and anxiety symptoms. 

Note: Oftentimes, doctors are unable to safely diagnose anxiety attacks because anxiety takes many forms and can be a symptom of other health conditions. Hence, a complete physical examination is needed to diagnose anxiety. 

What to Expect

To diagnose you accurately, your doctor may conduct: 

  • an overall physical examination
  • a heart test
  • blood tests
  • and a psychological evaluation

Be honest with your doctor and give them all the necessary information for an accurate diagnosis. 

Treatment

Depending on the severity of your anxiety or panic attacks, various treatments can work. 

    • Medication: antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, or beta-blockers.
    • Counseling and psychotherapy.
    • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This will help you understand how your thoughts and emotions can affect your actions. It’ll also help you pinpoint negative thought and behavior patterns
    • Exposure therapy: This type of therapy exposes you to controlled situations that can trigger anxiety, panic, or fear which can help you learn to confront them and cope better.
    • Relaxation therapy: Relaxation therapy encompasses techniques that can help to reduce mental and physical tension and help you relax voluntarily. 

Final words

Now that you know the difference between anxiety and panic attacks, what should you do when you notice the symptoms? Seek professional help. Anxiety and panic attacks can be treated, even when they seem out of control. It’s just up to you to seek help in the right place. 

At mytherapist.ng, our mental wellness experts are readily available to attend to you, answer your questions, and provide the help and support you need. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us! 

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