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Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: What is the Difference?

Have you ever experienced the sudden inrush of panic? Maybe as a crowd of people swells around you, there’s a rising, unstoppable fear that takes over your whole mind. What about anxiety — the slow-growing stress that eats away at the edges of your world, until it’s all you can think about.


Most of us have experienced these feelings to some extent, and terms like "panic attack" and "anxiety attack" are often used interchangeably, leading to confusion about their true meanings.


However, these experiences are distinct, each with its own set of characteristics and implications for those who encounter them, and if you want to better understand how to treat them, you need need to know the difference. In this article, we'll delve into the nuances of panic attacks and anxiety attacks, exploring their similarities, differences, symptoms, and coping strategies.




Similarities Between Panic Attack an Anxiety Attack


At first glance, panic attacks and anxiety attacks may appear strikingly similar, as both involve intense emotional distress and can manifest with physical symptoms. 


They can be triggered by various stressors, whether external or internal, and can significantly impact an individual's daily life. Furthermore, both types of attacks can occur in people with anxiety disorders, although they can also manifest independently.


Both panic attacks and anxiety attacks can include the following physical symptoms:


  • Heart racing

  • Rising body temperature and sweating

  • Shortness of breath

  • Dizziness

  • Chest pain


But while a panic attack and an anxiety attack might feel physically similar, there are significant differences. Being able to distinguish between panic and anxiety will help you treat the root cause.


Telling the Difference Between Panic Attack and Anxiety Attack


While the line between panic attacks and anxiety attacks may seem blurred, understanding their fundamental differences is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective management.


Panic attacks are characterized by sudden, overwhelming surges of fear or panic that reach a peak within minutes. They can occur unexpectedly, seemingly out of nowhere.


Anxiety attacks typically involve prolonged periods of heightened worry or unease, often lasting days, weeks, or even longer. Anxiety attacks are less intense than panic attacks, but longer lasting.


Panic Attack Symptoms


During a panic attack, individuals may experience a wide range of distressing symptoms, both physical and psychological. These can include:


  • Chest pain or discomfort

  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations

  • Sweating or chills

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

  • Nausea or abdominal distress

  • Feelings of derealization or depersonalization

  • Fear of losing control or going crazy

  • Fear of dying


These symptoms can be so intense that individuals may feel as though they are having a heart attack or are on the verge of passing out. Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly, without any apparent trigger, or they may be triggered by specific situations or stimuli.


Anxiety Attack Symptoms

On the other hand, anxiety attacks typically involve a more gradual onset of symptoms, often in response to persistent stressors or worries. Symptoms of an anxiety attack may include:


  • Excessive worrying or rumination

  • Restlessness or feeling on edge

  • Muscle tension or soreness

  • Irritability or agitation

  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing

  • Fatigue or trouble sleeping

  • Habitually avoiding situations that intensify your anxiety

  • Gastrointestinal issues, such as nausea or diarrhea


Unlike panic attacks, which peak relatively quickly and then subside, anxiety attacks may linger for extended periods, contributing to chronic stress and impairment in daily functioning.


How to Deal With Panic Attacks and Anxiety


Because panic attacks and anxiety attacks have similar physical symptoms, there are coping strategies you can apply to both. Let’s take a look at what you can do, in the moment of an attack.


Acknowledge the Panic Attack:

Panic attacks can be frightening and overwhelming — you might feel like you’re going crazy, or even dying. Acknowledging that you’re having a panic attack can ease these feelings. You’ve experienced this before, and you were okay.


Deep Breathing:

Practice slow, deep breathing to calm the body's stress response. Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four, hold for four, then exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of four.


Mindfulness and Grounding Techniques:

Grounding techniques distract your mind from the panic. Focus on your surroundings by identifying and naming objects around you. Use grounding techniques such as touching or holding onto an object and describing its texture, shape, and temperature.


Another popular grounding technique is focusing on your senses. The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique involves identifying five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.


By focusing on the smell of gasoline, the feel of fabric against your arms or the taste of your toothpaste you can move your focus away from the anxiety.


Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

Deliberate muscle reaction counteracts the physical effects of anxiety. Tense and then relax each muscle group in your body, starting from your toes and working your way up to your head. This can help release tension and promote relaxation.


Positive Self-talk:

Anxiety is often accompanied by negative feelings and emotions. Counteracting these with positive affirmations can help you regain control. Remind yourself that what you're experiencing is temporary and that you have the ability to cope with it.


Lifestyle Changes to Help With Panic and Anxiety


Making big changes is hard, especially if your anxiety or panic disorders are accompanied by depression. But certain lifestyle choices and habits can help. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends the following home remedies for stress and anxiety:


  • Reduce consumption of caffeine and alcohol.

  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet.

  • Aim to sleep for 8 hours each night

  • Try to exercise for 2.5 hours every week. This can include light jogging or even walking.

  • Build a support network. Find people you can reach out to when you’re struggling.

Exposure Therapy


While exercise, breathing and mindfulness can help combat panic and anxiety attacks, clinically developed therapies can help with long-term wellbeing.


If you’re experiencing panic attacks or anxiety, oVRcome’s virtual reality exposure therapy program can help. oVRcome combines the gold-standard treatments of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy (ET) in a self-guided, app-based form. It makes your triggers, and the scary situations that surround them safe and approachable.


oVRcome is clinically proven to help reduce symptoms of specific phobias, and all you need to get started is a smartphone and an internet connection. Explore our programs today.


Conclusion


While panic attacks and anxiety attacks share similarities in their manifestations and triggers, they are distinct experiences with different characteristics and implications. By understanding the differences between these phenomena and employing appropriate coping strategies, individuals can better manage their symptoms and improve their overall quality of life.


Whether experiencing sudden, intense panic or prolonged periods of heightened anxiety, seeking support and implementing effective coping strategies can make a significant difference in one's journey toward mental well-being.


If you feel anxiety around social situations, or find yourself avoiding places that cause feelings of panic, you might benefit from oVRcome’s virtual reality exposure therapy program. Take our free test today to find out more.

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