How to Tell the Difference between a Panic Attack and Anxiety Attack

Your heart starts beating rapidly, you become short of breath, and it may actually start to feel like you’re being smothered. Anyone with driving fear or driving anxiety may have felt these symptoms at one time or another, and you may come to automatically assume you’re having a panic attack.

That may be correct, or it could be something else. That something else is an anxiety attack. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are two different things. Knowing the difference between the two can help you understand what to expect when one or the other is occurring.

Overview: Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

Panic attacks typically hit suddenly and without warning. They tend to be intense yet often gradually subside after 10 minutes. Those with panic disorder are mainly affected by panic attacks, and several panic attacks can occur in a row.

Anxiety attacks are associated with driving fear, driving anxiety, trauma and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anxiety attacks may be brought on by a trigger, rather than coming out of the blue. They’re often preceded by a period of excessive worry and may linger for days or even months. The attack itself may last for several hours, with ongoing discomfort that is not as intense as panic attacks.

Symptoms: Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

Some of the symptoms are the same for panic attacks and anxiety attacks. These include rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath and the sensation of being smothered. Dizziness, chest pain and numbness or tingling in the extremities are other symptoms associated with both types of attacks. Additional symptoms differ.

Panic Attack Symptoms

  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Nausea or stomach pain
  • Shaking, sweating

In the midst of a panic attack, people may feel like they’re going crazy, losing control or have a sudden fear that they will die. They may also experience the sensation of being detached from themselves and their surroundings.

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

  • Fear, being easily startled
  • Irritability, restlessness, loss of concentration
  • Restless sleeping, fatigue
  • Worry and distress
  • Dry mouth and muscle pain

How to Deal with Anxiety Attacks or Panic Attacks

Knowing if you’re experiencing an anxiety attack or a panic attack can help you understand what to expect. You can also try a few tips that can help you deal with either one as it’s happening.

  • Don’t try to push it away. Accept that an attack is happening and look your fear in the face. Confronting and feeling your fear allows it to more easily pass through and subside.
  • Look at it with curiosity. Instead of immediately labeling an attack as “bad” and fretting that it’s happening, try observing it with a bit of curiosity. Don’t judge it. Observe it with openness, looking for reasons or triggers behind it.
  • Focus on your surroundings and doing what you were doing before the attack began. The panic and anxiety may still continue to unfold, but you can let it unfold in the background as you complete what you need to do.

Understanding and accepting what’s unfolding with an open mind can help you get through attacks more effectively while learning a few things about yourself along the way.