Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are hard to distinguish for the untrained eye. Knowing how to identify them helps to cope appropriately.

‘Panic attack’ is the official term; ‘anxiety attack’ is informal.

“A panic attack is a diagnosable mental health issue observed within disorders like panic disorder and social anxiety disorder. An anxiety attack is a term non-professionals use to describe increased anxiety symptoms,” says Eric Patterson, LPC. “Mental health clinicians should only use the terms panic attack and anxiety.”

Panic attacks are sudden and short-lived. Anxiety attacks are gradual and long-lasting.

Dr. Rashmi Parmar, a psychiatrist at Mindpath Health, says that although they seem similar, they are notably different.

“A panic attack is unique in the way it begins. It can occur unexpectedly and take you by surprise. Panic attacks may be untriggered, but some panic attacks have a trigger, says Dr. Parmar. “An anxiety attack occurs due to preexisting worries or anxiety triggers and is not entirely unexpected.”

Their intensity varies

There’s a stark difference in the intensity of symptoms in both of these attacks. A panic attack is usually much more intense in severity. It is severe enough to cause significant disruption the moment it strikes. A person will usually be unable to function or carry on a task while experiencing a panic attack. It warrants immediate measures, like removing yourself from an uncomfortable situation or engaging in relaxation and breathing techniques.

The above measures can help with anxiety attacks as well. A person may function relatively better during the mild phases of a long anxiety attack. Even if they don’t take any action to deal with it, they can go about their day.

The mental effects are easy to distinguish.

“You are more likely to encounter feelings of detachment from yourself or the environment during a panic attack,” says Dr. Parmar.

Possible symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • An overwhelming feeling of dread
  • An intense fear that something terrible is happening
  • Experiencing tunnel vision
  • Feeling that you might faint
  • Losing control over yourself

Other physical symptoms are common for both anxiety and panic attacks. These may include:

  • Chest discomfort/pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Heart sensations
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Throat tightness
  • Tingling or numbness in extremities
  • Trembling

The full article from the Ladders can be found here.

Rashmi Parmar, M.D.

Newark, CA

Dr. Parmar is a double board-certified psychiatrist in Adult and Child Psychiatry. She earned her medical degree at Terna Medical College & Hospital in Mumbai, India. Thereafter, she completed general psychiatry training at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center program, TX, followed by the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry fellowship training at Hofstra Northwell Health program, NY. Her training has equipped ... Read Full Bio »

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