Anxiety attack and panic attack, what is the difference?


People often confuse them as if they were two names that define the same condition. But anxiety attack and panic attack are different disorders.

They share several warning signs, but knowing how to differentiate them can speed up the search for help, diagnosis and adequate treatment, so that they do not affect different levels of daily life.

The main physical signs they share are:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • palpitations
  • Nausea
  • excessive sweating
  • Shaking chills
  • Headache and dizziness
  • tremors

Although they have in common the sensation of fear, certain emotional signals differentiate them:

  • In anxiety attacks there are: restlessness, anguish, suspicion.
  • In panic attacks there are: fear of losing control, feeling of detachment (from oneself or from environments where there are other people)

With so many symptoms in common, it is necessary to clearly know the differences, one of the most critical is that the anxiety attack usually begins in front of a “trigger”, it can be a high-stress situation such as the final exam before graduation, a divorce hearing, the unexpected act of speaking before an audience, or the sudden loss of someone deeply loved.

However, the panic attack comes on suddenly, from one second to the next, seemingly for no visible reason.

Between both conditions, the panic attack is the one that presents the symptoms in the most extreme way, the feeling of emergency is much stronger. Anxiety is like it accumulates over minutes, hours or even days, until it explodes in the form of an attack.

Panic attack

A panic attack starts suddenly and most often peaks within 10 to 20 minutes. Some symptoms may continue for an hour or more. It is possible that it could be confused with a heart attack.

A person can live with a panic disorder, where the attacks still occur unexpectedly, but on a constant basis.

This feeling that the attack may recur without warning, that it cannot be predicted, often leaves the person living in fear of another attack.

Panic attacks can change behavior and performance at home, work, or school. People with this disorder often worry about the effects of their panic attacks.

People with panic disorder may abuse alcohol or other drugs and may feel sad or depressed.

What causes a panic attack

Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some family members have it and others don’t. Researchers have discovered that there are some parts of the brain, and certain biological processes, that play a key role in fear and anxiety.

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Some scientists think that people with panic disorder misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats. There is also ongoing research looking at how stress and environmental factors may play a role.

Panic attacks are characterized by fear of disaster or fear of losing control, even when there is no real danger. You can also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack.

You may feel like you are having a heart attack. Panic attacks can happen at any time. Many people with panic disorder worry and fear that they may have another attack.

Panic disorder often begins in late adolescence or early adulthood. More women than men have panic disorder. However, not everyone who has panic attacks will have panic disorder.

Many people with panic disorder first seek treatment at an emergency room, because a panic attack often feels like a heart attack.

To Diagnose The doctor will perform a physical exam and a psychiatric evaluation.

Blood tests will be done. Other medical conditions must be ruled out before panic disorder can be diagnosed. Substance use disorders should also be considered, as symptoms may mimic panic attacks.

panic treatment

The goal of therapy is to help you function well in daily life. A combination of medication and psychotherapy works best.

Psychotherapy (cognitive behavioral therapy) can help understand panic attacks and teach how to overcome them. During therapy you will learn to:

  • Understand and control distorted views of everyday stressors, such as other people’s behavior or the events of life.
  • Recognize and replace the thoughts that cause panic and decrease the feeling of feeling helpless.
  • Manage stress and relax when symptoms occur.
  • Imagine the things that cause anxiety, starting with the least feared. Practice in a real life situation to help overcome fears.

Certain medications, usually used to treat depression, may be helpful for this disorder. They work by preventing symptoms or making them less severe. They must be taken as prescribed for them to achieve the necessary therapeutic effect.

Anxiety Attack

Occasionally, anxiety can be part of a life moment. Anxiety can be felt when an exam is coming up, when getting married, facing a problem at work or with the family.

This type of anxiety can be defined as a moment of nerves, and is overcome once the conflict is resolved.

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However, if the anxiety becomes a constant, seriously affecting family life, relationships and work or daily tasks, it may be an anxiety disorder, which is a very different condition.

The American Psychological Association (APA) explains that the term anxiety disorder is an umbrella under which different types of disorders are found. Among them:

Agoraphobia. Fear of open spaces, outdoor social gatherings, for example, in which the person feels insecure and embarrassed. Therefore, he seeks to avoid those places, and in its extreme form, the phobia prevents him from leaving his home.

Generalized anxiety. It occurs when the person simply fears everything and every situation in life, even small activities such as going to the supermarket, it generates anxiety. This type of anxiety disorder is often accompanied by depression.

Anxiety due to medical condition. It occurs when the person feels an intense sense of anxiety due to a medical diagnosis. This psychological reaction may not be associated only with a serious illness such as the news about cancer. A minor disturbance can trigger it.

Panic disorder. These are sudden episodes of panic in which the person loses control of himself. It is difficult for him to breathe and he presents an uncontrollable fear. It generates immediate physical effects: shortness of breath and tachycardia, and the desire to vomit, among others.

Social phobia (or social anxiety disorder). The person does not tolerate being in any type of social situation, especially those that summon many people. She fears being watched, judged, or teased.

Separation anxiety disorder. It occurs in children, who often feel excessive levels of anxiety when they must be away from their parents for daily activities, such as going to school.

Addiction anxiety. It occurs in people suffering from drug addiction. The absence of the drug, for example during rehabilitation, generates the withdrawal syndrome that causes anxiety.

Specific phobias. For example, the fear of flying, of heights, of certain animals such as spiders, snakes, and even dogs, of blood, of injections.

What causes an anxiety disorder

The direct causes that trigger these disorders are not known.

Researchers are learning that they run in families and have a biological basis, just like allergies, diabetes and other disorders.

Anxiety disorders can develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.

Anxiety Treatment

Medication and therapy are usually combined to treat these types of disorders.

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Talk therapy is a good step for people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Also cognitive therapy, which teaches the patient resources and ways to redirect anxiety, and keep it under control.

This therapy also helps the patient develop and practice social skills, an essential step in getting life back on track.

Medication does not cure anxiety disorders, but it does help improve symptoms. The following are the three families of drugs that are used to treat anxiety:

Anti anxiety medications. They help reduce symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, and uncontrollable fears linked to anxiety. The most popular that achieve these goals are benzodiazepines

One of the problems with these types of drugs is that people who take them can develop tolerance over time, forcing them to use higher doses. This can create dependency.

To prevent this unwanted effect, doctors often prescribe them for short periods of time.

As a potentially addictive medication, they must be stopped gradually, to avoid withdrawal syndrome, and anxiety to return.

Antidepressants. These medications can also help treat anxiety. They have been shown to have the ability to control certain chemical reactions in the brain linked to stress and mood swings.

Beta blockers. The main use of this family of drugs is the treatment of hypertension. But they are also effective in treating the symptoms of anxiety attacks, such as palpitations, tremors and a symptom that people who suffer from anxiety hate: turning extremely red.

The treatment of anxiety disorders must be carried out under the strict control of a specialized doctor.

In addition to medical and psychological therapy, experts advise effective stress management and joining support groups. They assure that listening to the experiences of peers helps to improve the clinical and psychological picture.

What can help overcome both conditions

The following may also help reduce the number or severity of panic attacks:

  • not drink alcohol
  • Eat at regular times
  • exercise regularly
  • get enough sleep
  • Reduce or avoid caffeine, certain cold medications, and stimulants.
  • As with so many other conditions, support groups work well for coping with anxiety and panic. Listening to other people who have gone through or are going through the same thing not only helps to receive advice, but also to understand that the person is not alone.

    Sources: NIMH, APA, Mayo Clinic, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, MedlinePlus.




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