How to Differentiate a Panic Attack from an Anxiety Attack

Millions of American suffer form anxiety. When experiencing an attack during a bout of anxiety, you may either have an anxiety attack or a panic attack depending on your symptoms.

Confusion surrounding the difference between these two attacks is prevalent as many people suffering from anxiety misdiagnose their own episodes. Anxiety attacks are often more manageable, whereas the frequency of panic attack symptoms may need to be addressed by a healthcare professional.

Panic attacks are reflective of a clinical condition whereas anxiety attacks are concentrated expressions of the most common causes of anxiety. An anxiety attack varies depending on someone’s personal experience, but a panic attack is medically defined under the same set of standards for everyone. To ensure you are treating your anxiety properly, learn how to differentiate between the symptoms of a panic attack and the symptoms associated with having an anxiety attack.

What is an anxiety attack?

Symptoms of anxiety occur when you are anticipating something stressful, such as a work deadline or a project proposal at school. When you suffer from an anxiety attack, you are feeling a heightened sense of emotion that is directly attributed to a personal stressor. This means different people have different anxiety attack triggers which varies from the causes associated with a panic attack.

Anxiety attacks are accompanied by physical symptoms, such as chest tightness and an accelerated heart rate which may become worse as you continue to think of your stressor. These symptoms, while they can be severe at the time, typically alleviate themselves once the stressor has been eliminated.

Related Article: Anxiety Disorders

An anxiety attack is categorized as a period of intense stress or heightened emotion caused by a specific trigger. These are more common than panic attacks, as people who suffer from anxiety are prone to developing bouts of intensive fears and concerns which manifest as anxiety attacks. These feelings should not be ignored and mental health maintenance is important to help overcome anxiety attacks.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a clinical term used to categorize an unexpected rush of heightened emotion. Unlike anxiety attacks, panic attacks are not triggered by one specific stressor. These attacks are usually unexpected and cannot be attributed to any logical reason. When you are having a panic attack, you may experience intense levels of fear, anxiousness or discomfort which arise seemingly out of nowhere. Panic attacks are more severe than anxiety attacks though they typically only last for a few minutes.

When you are experiencing a panic attack, your body produces elevated levels of adrenaline which may be difficult to calm down from once the attack has subsided. You may be prone to experiencing nocturnal panic attacks which happen when you awaken suddenly to a feeling of panic or fear. These do not need to be prompted by something, such as a nightmare, as nocturnal panic attacks occur as randomly as standard panic attacks. If you experience a nocturnal panic attack, take some time to allow your adrenaline levels to subside before you attempt to fall back to sleep.

Symptoms associated with a panic attack include:

  • Pounding heart or heart palpitations.
  • Muscle shaking or trembling.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • A sensation of being smothered.
  • Chest discomfort or chest pain.
  • A choking sensation.
  • Abdominal distress.
  • Nausea.
  • Dizziness or feelings of being lightheaded.

Panic attack symptoms are more extreme than those of anxiety attacks. If you experience a panic attack, then you may undergo a fear of losing control or an intense fear of dying. Feelings of unreality, commonly referred to as derealization, are also common in panic attacks. To be diagnosed with a panic attack you must display at least four of these symptoms, as per standards outlined by the American Psychiatric Association.

What is panic disorder?

If you experience panic attacks on a regular basis, you may have developed a panic disorder. Approximately two to three percent of people suffering from frequent panic attacks develop a panic disorder resulting from these intense symptoms. When you have a panic disorder, you experience a general fear of fear itself resulting in an apprehension toward panic-inducing feelings.

Panic disorders cause afflicted individuals to believe they are dying or going crazy as the level of panic they are experiencing does not subside gradually. They require medical attention as you may need a prescription medication to alleviate the severe symptoms associated with this mental illness. Cognitive therapy may help to reduce the level of fear and panic you feel once you are diagnosed with one of these disorders.

How do I manage my anxiety symptoms?

Regardless of whether you have anxiety attacks or panic attacks, treatment options are available and vary depending on your personal experiences. Mental health experts suggest cognitive behavioral therapy for people who are afflicted with either anxiety attacks or panic attacks. This type of therapy provides people with the ability to better manage situations where they feel anxious.

Through CBT, a therapist helps you establish meaningful ways of coping with your anxiety in the moment instead of simply pushing a situation off because you know it is going to cause an attack. The longer you push something off, the greater your anxiety becomes and your odds of experiencing an attack increases along with your anxiety levels.

Techniques such as slow-breathing help to alleviate the feeling of fear and help to control symptoms such as heart palpitations. To complete this technique, focus on your breath as you begin to breathe in and out. Take a deep breath in and hold the breath in your chest for a moment before taking a long, slow breath out.  Be sure to push the entire breath out before returning to your normal breathing pattern as this helps to decrease the level of panic you are feeling. Practice this technique before the attack occurs as it helps to address your stressors before they begin to take hold of you.

Medications are available for those who are suffering from anxiety and are not finding relief in either therapy or through meditation, yoga or breathing techniques. Anxiety medication is commonly prescribed for people who experience severe symptoms.

Related Article: How to Find Mental Health Help for Yourself

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