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Am I having a panic attack, or an anxiety attack?

August 1, 2022

More than eight million people in the UK – that’s one in 10 – are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time, according to Mental Health UK, while MIND estimates that around one percent of the population experiences panic disorder. If you look at a list of symptoms for either disorder, the word ‘attack’ is likely to come up.


The terms 'panic attack’ and ‘anxiety attack’ are sometimes used interchangeably, but the two things are not quite the same. In this blog we’ll explore the key differences between them, including the common physical and psychological symptoms people experience.  


Anxiety attacks

Anxiety is a general term that describes a feeling. It’s something most of us experience from time to time, usually when we’re facing a stressful or high-pressure event. However, if someone’s anxiety grows out of proportion, seems to come out of nowhere, or happens too often, it can become a problem. This could manifest as an anxiety disorder such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), health anxiety, social anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Anxiety attacks are when the feelings we have peak too high, or go on for too long.


What causes them? There are lots of potential triggers. It might be that someone is worried or afraid about something, or in a situation that's known to cause them anxiety. Anxiety attacks can also be triggered by stress, or by past experiences, for instance if someone has been through a trauma.  


What do they feel like? People experience them in many different ways. Physical symptoms might include a racing or pounding heart, shakiness, nausea or light-headedness, and these happen because the body is preparing itself to deal with a challenge. Other commonly reported symptoms include blushing, stomach cramps and indigestion, and trouble sleeping.


Someone having an anxiety attack may also have unseen cognitive symptoms – such as excessive worrying, flashbacks, or feelings of exhaustion or helplessness. It’s possible to have cognitive symptoms without experiencing physical symptoms.


How long do they last? They tend to last longer than panic attacks, sometimes for hours or days, and might build up gradually.


When should you seek treatment or support? If the symptoms are interfering with your life, or you’ve started to avoid situations that could trigger your anxiety, it’s a good idea to seek help. Trying to ‘fight’ the symptoms won’t make them go away; in fact this might actually make them worse.


Panic attacks

These are attacks of intense fear or panic that can happen at any time. People tend to experience the symptoms very strongly in their body rather than their mind, and the physical reactions can feel quite severe in nature.


What causes them? Anyone can have a panic attack. They may not necessarily have an obvious trigger or a reason, and they can feel like they come on ‘out of the blue’.


What do they feel like? If you ask a group of people who all get panic attacks what they’re like, they’ll probably describe their experiences in quite a similar way, which isn’t typically the case with anxiety attacks.


Common symptoms include racing heart, feeling sick, trembling, sweating, difficulty breathing, dizziness, ‘tunnel vision’, shaky limbs and chest pain. For some people, these symptoms are so extreme they worry that they’re really ill, losing control, or even dying.


How long do they last? They can start quite suddenly. The peak of a panic attack tends to last around 10 minutes, and then starts to subside. They don't last for hours or days, like anxiety attacks can.


Panic attacks can be a one-off event, so just because you’ve had one doesn’t mean the problem will be ongoing. For some people, however, worrying about it happening again can trigger an attack, perhaps if they’re in the same location or situation as before. Repeated panic attacks could be a sign of panic disorder.


When should you seek treatment or support? It’s worth looking for help if panic attacks are having an impact on your ability to function normally. Recognise if you’ve started to avoid certain places or situations – putting off doing the shopping if you once had an attack in the supermarket, for example.


Whether you're experiencing panic or anxiety, it’s important to remember that neither is a sign of weakness. They’re a natural physical response to a threat or stress, as your body tries to make sure you can take action. Once upon a time this reaction was very useful – and it still can be if we find ourselves in danger or in a crisis – but most of the time it’s not very helpful!


Panic and anxiety attacks can be debilitating, but the symptoms can be treated and managed. Both respond very well to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which will help you to understand what you’re experiencing, and provide strategies, skills and techniques for coping. Many people get better after their course.


Learn more about online CBT from ieso, and how it can be used to treat anxiety.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.

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