Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: What’s THE Difference?

Do you want to know the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

If so, then you are at the right place!

in this article, I’ll break down the difference between the two.

By the end, you also know 3 ways to treat them effectively.

Let’s get started!

What is an anxiety attack?

First of all, there actually is no such thing as an “anxiety attack”. We often speak about having anxiety in general. Anxiety is a feeling of unease that includes worry or fear. Feelings of anxiety are always varying in intensity. They can be mild or severe. In general, anxiety is less intense than panic. 

Some people deal with intense anxiety every day, while some people have mild bouts of anxiety now and then. If an “anxiety attack” would be a thing, it would mean that you experience a sudden wave of anxiety that often comes out of the blue. But when that happens, we often speak of a panic attack.

The most common symptoms of anxiety are:

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is best described as a sudden, but intense wave of fear. It often comes out of the blue (often without a clear trigger), and can happen when you’re feeling calm or anxious. A panic attack is more intense and sudden, than anxiety. In essence, it is you, misinterpreting what is happening to you. You misinterpret that adrenaline that flushes through your body, because you think you are losing your mind.

When you are struck by a panic attack, it could feel like you are losing control or are about to die. But don’t worry! That is not possible, as a panic attack is just your misinterpretation of an unwanted dose of adrenaline.

Panic attacks could have no clear trigger, but if they are recurring, they could have a trigger; think of specific situations, like crossing a bridge or driving a car. 

The most common symptoms of panic attacks are:

Causes of anxiety- and panic attacks

Of course, you want to know how anxiety and panic are caused, because it helps you with understanding this somewhat “scary” topic.

But relax… feeling anxiety or panic are completely normal. You are not weird, alone and unique, as many more people struggle with anxiety.

Let’s take a look at the causes of anxiety.

Causes of Anxiety

Anxiety is almost always caused by built-up long-term stress, or a traumatic incident. When you are living in too much worry and stress, your mind starts to think you are in danger and becomes very sensitive to its environment. Now the stress response gets triggered very easily.

This would explain why you can get triggered by the most innocent triggers. 

It’s simply your brain saying: “I see you are in danger for such a long period of time, let’s keep the fight or flight response activated just in case!”

This results in many of the symptoms described above. 

Causes of a Panic Attack

Without a trigger

Almost always, a panic attack strikes out of the blue. When you are living under too much stress for too long, your body becomes very sensitive to its environment. This long-term, built-up stress can cause the body to go into fight or flight mode for the most innocent triggers.

Then the body releases a shot of adrenaline to get you into fight or flight mode. Somethimes this happens at the peak of your anxiety, but sometimes this can happen when you are calm.

And when you misinterpret what is happening to you when you feel these weird bodily sensations, you can land yourself into a full-blown panic attack.

Luckily, you can never lose control because of a panic attack, as it is just a flush of adrenaline that goes through your body. It’s just your body that became very sensitive to stress and made you feel some anxious sensations that you misinterpreted.

With a trigger

Your amygdala, which is the little part of your brain that is responsible for your fight or flight response, makes the emotional memories during your lifetime. 

For example: if a young girl was bitten by a dog when she was 4 years old, her amygdala attaches the emotion “fear” to “dogs”. Now 25 years later, she is still afraid of dogs. 

Her amygdala connected dogs with fear. She can either remember or don’t remember the moment when she was bitten. But in either way: her amygdala doesn’t forget the event, which explains why she might not be aware of the trigger that seemingly comes out of the blue.

And if she misinterprets her anxious feeling and fights them, she could land into a panic attack. 

Treatment of anxiety- and panic attacks

Of course you want to know how to treat panic attacks. They often interfere with your ability to live life, something I know out of first hand. The few panic attacks I had were scary, but I wish I knew what I could do.

Option 1. Exposure Therapy

The best approach to recover from panic attacks is to practice exposure therapy. I’ll soon write another article on exposure therapy, but here is a short description.

With exposure therapy you bring yourself in situations that make you anxious. You do this to rewire your brain and show your amygdala, that the situation is safe. By doing this the amygdala learns that going to the mall, or driving a car (or your own trigger) is perfectly safe. The more anxiety you feel during the exposure, the more you expose yourself and prime yourself for healing. 

Exposure therapy is a great way to overcome any triggers that make you anxious. Always make sure to do this under professional guidance. 

In combination with exposure therapy it is important to learn how to destress your nervous system by more sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and fun activities. This helps your body to become less sensitive.

Option 2. Changing your Response

The second approach that works in harmony with option 1, is to change your response to anxious feelings. Whenever you feel symptoms of panic (racing heart, shortness of breath) that seemingly come out of the blue… learn how to respond correctly.

When you freak out and misinterpret these feelings (like: I am about to die or lose control) you could land into a full-blown panic attack, but when you learn how to interpret these sensations the right way… you rapidly decrease the intensity.

For example: this means telling yourself that panic and anxiety cannot hurt you.

I learn my paid clients the PAU-Response to deal with anxiety and panic. Make sure to download my FREE PDF to learn it as well.

Option 3: Medication

The third option is to “treat” panic attacks with medication. To be honest, I am not a big fan of medication and have done everything I could in the past to avoid them. But if your life is seriously interrupted by panic attacks, this might be an option for you. 

If possible, don’t take medication in the hope your panic attacks disappear after you stop taking them. Actively work on your panic by using exposure therapy and implementing the right response to anxious sensations.  

Always consider talking to your doctor before taking any medications and practicing exposure. 

Why? 

Because some medications interfere with exposure therapy, like benzodiazepines, while SSRI antidepressants might help you with exposure therapy.

Takeaway

After this article, I hope you gained a better understanding of the difference between a panic attack and anxiety. There is no such thing as an anxiety attack, because anxiety is more of a spectrum. It is often caused by long-term stress and worry, and can vary in intensity.

But on the other hand, a panic attack is more sudden and intense. Anxiety can last for days, weeks and months, whereas a panic attack is always over within 30 minutes, as the body simply run out of adrenaline. 

If you want to learn more about freeing yourself from anxiety, then make sure to watch my FREE limited time training down below.

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About Wouter

Wouter is a mindset coach from The Netherlands. For many years he suffered from depression and anxiety. It gave him the motivation to coach people on freeing themselves from anxiety. With more than 6000 blog visitors a month he helps many people on their journey towards less anxiety.

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