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The difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks

December 21, 2020

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 at one time or another, usually in response to a stressful or high-pressure event in our life. If anxiety is problematic it can manifest as a number of different conditions – including generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), health anxiety, social anxiety, and 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?

Anxiety attacks are usually very specific to individuals; people experience them in many different ways. Physical symptoms might include a racing or pounding heart, shakiness, nausea or light-headedness, which are also typical with a panic attack, and happen because the body is preparing itself to deal with a challenge. People also report other symptoms including blushing, stomach cramps and indigestion, and trouble sleeping.

Someone having an anxiety attack may also have unseen cognitive symptoms – such as excessive worrying, flashbacks, perfectionism, 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’ against 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 strike at any time. They are physical reactions which can feel quite severe in nature; we tend to experience the symptoms in our body.

What causes them?

Anyone can have a panic attack. They may not necessarily have an obvious trigger or a reason, and they can 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 and dizziness. For some people, these symptoms are so extreme they worry that they’re really ill, or even dying.

How long do they last?

They can start quite suddenly. The peak of a panic attack is reached within 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.

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 CBT and how it can be used to treat anxiety.

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