If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you may be prone to experiencing anxiety attacks. For many years, this term has been loosely associated with a “panic attack,” to the point that the two terms were even interchanged. However, while there are similarities between anxiety and panic attacks, they aren’t actually the same.
Anxiety Attacks Versus Panic Attacks
Speaking to ABC News, Dr. Cathy Frank of Henry Ford Health System notes that anxiety attacks occur when a person may be in close proximity to a particular stressor. It’s characterized by feelings of fearfulness and tension, and a person may find it hard to breathe, or notice their heartbeat is very fast.1
Anxiety attacks are characterized by intense and overwhelming mental and physical symptoms that have built up over time. In some cases, the physical indicators tend to be severe and may mimic serious health problems. While anxiety attacks last as long as 15 to 30 minutes, they are said to be less intense compared to panic attacks.2
However, take note that the phrase “anxiety attack” isn’t a formal clinical term. The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition” or DSM-5 (often used to diagnose mental conditions) doesn’t have a definition for anxiety attacks, but instead refers to these attacks as a possible indicator of various types of anxiety disorders.3
On the other hand, if you or someone you know is suddenly overcome with intense fear, despite a lack of cause or danger, and exhibits drastic physical actions, then you may be having a panic attack. Considered more severe than anxiety attacks, people who experience panic attacks tend to feel physical or mentally ill.
The Mayo Clinic likens this experience to losing control of your body, experiencing a heart attack or feeling like you’re drying. Although panic attacks aren’t life-threatening, they can definitely be scary and may negatively impact your life.4 The symptoms of panic attacks are sudden, occur out-of-the-blue, and often peak for 10 minutes5 and then subside. However, some attacks may last longer or happen successively.6 Usually, a person experiences one or two panic attacks during his or her lifetime.
A consultation with a physician or mental health specialist may be required if these attacks continue and occur unexpectedly, or if the person constantly worries about another panic attack. These may be early indicators of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder that must be addressed as soon as possible.7
Indicators of Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Typical anxiety attack symptoms to watch out for include:8
Rapid and pounding heart
Experiencing a choking sensation
Lightheadedness or dizziness
Tingling or numbness
Chills or hot flashes
Noticing feelings of unreality
Fear of losing mind or dying
On the other hand, signs of panic attacks include:9
Feelings of impending doom or danger
Fear of loss of control or death
Rapid and pounding heartbeat
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath or tightness in the throat
Chills or hot flashes
Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
Numbness or tingling sensation
Feeling of unreality or detachment
Whether you have an anxiety or panic attack, it’s important that you consult a physician or mental health professional to help you get to the bottom of your anxiety disorder. This may also prevent the attacks from cascading into more devastating conditions.