Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/9/2021
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably experienced a particularly uncomfortable feeling—a degree of discomfort that made your body feel off, and left you thinking to yourself “something’s not right.”
Maybe it was a tightness in your chest or unexplained sweating. Maybe it was a sharp change in intensity in your heartbeat.
Maybe your muscles were tense, and you felt simultaneously tired and restless. Maybe you had sudden and unexplained feelings of worry or impending doom.
Maybe you mistook whatever this was for stomach issues—or a heart attack.
Does this sound familiar?
If so, the explanation may have been something less simple to explain: an anxiety or panic attack.
Many people use these terms interchangeably, but in reality, these episodes have distinguishing characteristics that set them apart.
Anxiety and panic attacks have many things in common, but understanding which one you’ve experienced is an important part of getting the right treatment.
Let’s look at the differences between the two types of attacks.
A panic attack is a sudden, intense “attack” defined by overwhelming fear. Some people who experience panic attacks report thinking that they are going to die.
Physical symptoms of a panic attack include sweating, trembling or shaking, sensations of shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, heart palpitations or changes in heart rate, or feelings of being out of control or doom.
Panic attacks, according to Harvard Medical School, will have at least four telltale symptoms from a list including choking, chest pain, feeling lightheaded, chills, hot flushes, trembling, sweating, palpitations and rapid pulse, fear of losing control, abdominal discomfort, numbness, shortness of breath, fear of dying, and feeling of unreality or detachment called depersonalization.
These symptoms can be very frightening, especially if it is your first panic attack and you are not quite sure what you are experiencing.
In fact, the NIMH says that people with panic disorders often worry about when future attacks will happen, which can lead to the development of additional problems like agoraphobia.
Over time, you may be able to identify your triggers, or events that are likely to cause a panic attack.
This is especially true if your panic attacks are caused by a specific phobia or your anxiety is tied to specific events.
An anxiety attack is not technically a DSM-5 diagnosis, which means that a mental health professional cannot diagnose you with having “anxiety attacks.”
However, many people use this term to describe panic attacks, or use anxiety attack to describe periods of intense anxiety symptoms, such as excess worry or fear.
If you are experiencing periods of anxiety, or symptoms similar to that of panic attacks, talk to a mental health professional.
Even though an anxiety attack is not a diagnosis, you may be experiencing generalized anxiety disorder or another anxiety disorder.
Put simply, panic and anxiety are squares and rectangles: panic is a particular kind of anxiety disorder, but not all anxiety disorders include panic symptoms.
The National Institute of Mental Health explains that anxiety disorders are a blanket term for a group of disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and other phobias.
And in the simplest terms, panic is a more extreme version of anxiety. This is not to say that the disorders are on some sort of scale.
Panic disorder sufferers often experience anxiety symptoms, and anxiety sufferers can occasionally experience panic symptoms.
But to help you understand your particular symptoms, we can separate the two conditions into panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder is primarily defined by “excessive anxiety of worry” for an extended period of time.
A single day of anxiety is not enough to qualify you—in fact, the National Institute of Mental Health says people with this disorder display characteristic symptoms “most days for at least six months.”
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include being easily fatigued; feeling restless, wound-up, or on edge; having difficulty concentrating; being irritable; having muscle tension; difficulty controlling feelings of worry; having sleep problems such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep.
It’s hard to believe anyone can go six months without a day full of symptoms of anxiety, but the key difference between being “normal” and being “disordered” is the frequency or constancy of those feelings for a prolonged period of time.
Oh, and don’t let that make you think anxiety disorders are Unusual. Data from the National Institute of Mental Health shows that at some point in life, an estimated 31.1 percent of adults in the U.S. will experience an anxiety disorder.
Which one they have is a more complicated question, because symptoms can be fluid between some conditions. Which leads us to panic disorder.
Panic disorder is, in many ways, just anxiety dialed up to eleven. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with panic disorder “have recurrent unexpected panic attacks,” which are defined as “sudden periods of intense fear that come on quickly and reach their peak within minutes.” Scary, right? And worse yet, attacks can be triggered, but they can also come on unexpectedly.
Panic attacks are typically visceral experiences with a list of physical symptoms, like shortness of breath, chest pain or lightheadedness.
A panic attack can feel like an adrenaline spike, or like the fight or flight response has been activated by an unseen threat.
A single panic attack may not indicate a larger mental health issue- some people experience a one time panic attack during a particularly stressful time in their lives.
However, if you are experiencing recurring panic attacks, you may have panic disorder. There are treatments for panic disorder that can help you to reduce the frequency and severity of your panic attacks.
As much as we know about the symptoms, we don’t really understand why people get these conditions.
They can develop from trauma or stressful events, but there’s also reason to believe genetics play a role in acquiring panic disorder.
With so many symptoms and issues to worry about, both of these disorders can trigger, well, attacks.
And the uncertainty of both conditions (tied in with the fact that there are no cures) can lead to additional feelings of doom and helplessness.
But the good news is that there are treatment options available to help you minimize, mitigate, and manage attacks, regardless of whether they’re attack or panic-based and get you on the track to mental well-being.
Our guide to coping with anxiety goes into more detail about available treatments for anxiety disorders, but here’s a brief look at the options available.
Anxiety and panic disorders generally respond well to therapeutic treatment practices. One particularly effective form of therapeutic treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): a well-known psychotherapy form used to treat depression as well.
CBT is designed to help disorder sufferers recognize disordered thinking systems and stressors that may let anxiety or panic set in and trigger attacks.
Correcting those behaviors requires a deeper understanding of the thought patterns that get you there, and a therapist can help you use CBT to craft coping strategies and relaxation techniques such as mindfulness to prevent or minimize future attacks.
Consult a mental health professional about counseling or online counseling to decide if it’s right for you.
Antidepressants affect the serotonin levels in your brain, and while they’re primarily employed to combat depression, they can also be used to deal with panic and anxiety symptoms.
The most commonly prescribed antidepressants are serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They block serotonin from being reabsorbed into neurons, which keeps more serotonin available to improve transmission between neurons.
Be wary though, as side effects can include a lot of issues that you’re likely trying to combat in the first place, like disturbed sleep, anxiety, headache and others.
And discontinuing these drugs can also increase your risk of suicide. So, be sure to communicate openly with your healthcare provider.
Talk to a hims online psychiatry provider today.
There are several similar reasons you might be predisposed to having a panic or anxiety attack.
Typical risk factors include:
bearing witness to a traumatic event, no matter how old you are or were
stressful events in life, such as divorce, death of a family member or friend, financial issues, family conflicts, or even high-paced work environments
serious or chronic illness, such as cancer, heart disease, or even thyroid disorder
other mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression
hereditary cases of anxiety or panic disorder
When it comes to any mental health condition, it's good to be aware of any tactics you can keep in your back pocket for moments when you aren't feeling your best.
Here are some things you can try the next time you have a panic or anxiety attack:
Breathing exercises. Focusing on breathing in and out slowly can help center your attention on being calm, instead of your attack.
Mindfulness or mindful meditation. Staying present in the moment by acknowledging your surroundings can help bring back a sense of reality and reduce any feelings of dissociation.
Guided relaxation techniques. Practicing muscle relaxation, imagery meditation, or other types of relaxation tactics can help release tension in your body.
One of the easiest self-help choices you can make when dealing with panic and anxiety attacks is making lifestyle changes.
Be on the lookout for the following factors that you can change:
Identify stressors in your life and work to avoid them or reduce contact with them.
Identify thoughts that are negative in nature and learn to address them
Maintain a balanced diet and regular exercise schedule
Join a support group. The hims platform offers anonymous online support groups so you don't even have to leave home.
Limit any alcohol, caffeine, or drug usage.
Whether you’re experiencing panic or anxiety attacks, the first step you should take in treating them is to seek professional help through a healthcare professional.
Because these are medical conditions, a primary care physician is a great place to start. They can help you with referrals and further codify your symptoms.
They may also be able to offer some advice about general lifestyle changes and best practices that might help you gain some control over anxiety and reduce attacks in everyday life.
And this might seem obvious, but if you’re struggling with these issues, don’t bottle it up. Talk to someone, be they a loved one, trusted friend or family member, or a counselor who can provide medical advice.
And remember to contact a mental health professional for personalized advice and treatment.