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Dr. Kojo Sarfo / Uncategorized  / What is the Difference Between Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks?

What is the Difference Between Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks?

Increased heart palpitations, chest tightening, and increasing distress are fearful symptoms that people mostly associated with panic and anxiety attacks. However, very few individuals can distinguish the differences between a panic attack and an anxiety attack. 

This article aims to define a panic versus an anxiety attack. It also provides various points of comparison for the two disorders and their home remedies and medical management.

What is a Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack?

Panic attacks involve severe, extreme, abrupt, and overwhelming fear, accompanied by fearful physical symptoms, categorized into unexpected and expected types. 

Meanwhile, anxiety attacks are a myriad of common psychiatric disorders that can cause gradual worry, fear, and distress over time. Anxiety attacks have 3 types – mild, moderate, and severe anxiety. 

Comparison Between Panic Attack and Anxiety Attack

Here are the points of comparison between panic and anxiety for better understanding and delineation of the disorders:

Prevalence

Approximately 2.7% of American adults experience panic disorders, according to NIMH. It has an increased prevalence in females (3.8%) than males (1.6%). For anxiety, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recorded a prevalence of 19.1% during a 12 month period. 

Causes or Triggers

There is no clear external cause for an unexpected panic attack. However, anxiety and expected panic attacks can be caused by the following triggers that can increase one’s heart rate:

  • Thyroid diseases
  • Stressful work
  • Certain medicines and supplements
  • Caffeine
  • Driving 
  • Social situations
  • Alcohol or drug withdrawal
  • Phobias such as agoraphobia, claustrophobia, and acrophobia
  • Chronic pain
  • Chronic diseases such as heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and diabetes mellitus
  • Memories of past traumatic experiences 

Risk Factors

Meanwhile, risk factors for both panic attacks and anxiety include:

  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Significant witness or experience of the traumatic event as a child or adult
  • Stressful life event (e.g., death of a loved one)
  • Continuous exposure to stress in work, family, and personal responsibilities
  • Chronic debilitating or life-endangering illness
  • Having an anxious personality or having family members with a history of anxiety or panic disorders
  • Existence of a mental health disorder

Signs and Symptoms

Panic and anxiety may share similar signs and symptoms and can occur at the same time. The manifestations of anxiety and panic are further classified into emotional/mental symptoms and physical symptoms. Here is a table comparing the signs and symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety attacks:

SymptomsAnxiety Attack Panic Attack
EMOTIONAL/PSYCHOLOGICAL 
Worry and apprehensionx
Distress or irritabilityx
Fearx
Difficulty concentratingx
Restlessnessx
Feelings of unreality (derealization)x
Feelings of detachment to oneself (depersonalization)x
Fear of getting crazy or losing controlx
Fear of dyingx
PHYSICALAnxiety AttackPanic Attack
Heart palpitations, racing heartbeat, or pounding heartxx
Profuse or excessive sweatingxx
Shaking or tremblingxx
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathingxx
Feeling of ‘choking’ or throat tightnessxx
Chest painxx
Nausea or abdominal discomfort or stomach upsetxx
Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintingxx
Numb or tingling sensation (paresthesias)xx
Hot flashesxx
Dry mouthxx
Chills xx
Headachexx
Fatiguex
Muscle tensenessx
Interrupted or disturbed sleepx
Increased startle reactionx

Diagnosis

The following procedures can be done to accurately diagnose the cause and existence of an anxiety attack and panic attack:

  • Physical assessment
  • Psychological examination and evaluation
  • Blood tests like thyroid function tests
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)

Medical Management

There are two types of medical treatments for mental disorders – psychotherapy and medications. For psychotherapy, the type of therapy and session depends on the severity of the attacks. It involves one-by-one or group sessions with clients having similar disorders. 

In terms of medications, the following medicines apply to the management of anxiety attacks and panic attacks, depending on the doctor’s discretion:

Preventive Home Remedies

Engaging in medical treatment is not enough. The individual and the doctor or mental health professional should discuss home treatment plans to control anxiety and panic attacks at home. Once you feel an attack, perform the following: 

  • Engage in slow, deep breathing: Deep breathing diverts your focus from panic or anxiety, relaxes your muscles, slows down breathing, and gives a sense of well-being. Deeply inhale and fill in your lungs with air, and count up to four to slowly exhale the air. 
  • Identify and accept the experience: Once you experience the attacks, the next time you encounter them again, remind yourself that the attacks are manageable and will soon pass.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Perform relaxation techniques such as guided imagery, aromatherapy, and massage to divert one’s focus from the attacks and relax the body. 
  • Perform lifestyle modifications: Change one’s lifestyle and decrease, if not remove, the potential causes of the attacks. Learn to focus on positive thoughts, get daily exercise, eat a balanced diet, avoid vices, and join support groups to boost one’s esteem.

Conclusion

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are different, although they may share similar symptoms, risk factors, and causes. In terms of onset, panic attacks are severe, extreme, abrupt, and subsides quickly. Anxiety attacks occur in a gradual onset that can last for weeks to months. 

Proper identification of the type, manifestations, and causes of these attacks can lead to better management and prevention of these disorders. Do not be afraid to ask for medical help once you experience one of these attacks. 

Citations:

Vandergriendt, Carly (2019). What’s the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack? Retrieved on March 09, 2021. From https://www.healthline.com/health/panic-attack-vs-anxiety-attack#takeaway

Ankrom, Sheryl (2020). Anxiety attacks vs. panic attacks. Retrieved on March 09, 2021. From https://www.verywellmind.com/anxiety-attacks-versus-panic-attacks-2584396.

Leonard, Jayne (2021). How do you know if you’re having a panic or anxiety attack? Retrieved on March 09, 2021. From https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321798#takeaway.

Disclaimer: The information in this site is not intended or recommended for patients or other lay persons or as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Patients must always consult a qualified health care professional regarding their diagnosis and treatment. Mental health conditions are complex, people differ widely in their conditions and responses, and interactions with other conditions and treatments are best evaluated by a physical examination and consultation with a qualified clinician.

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