Life

What’s the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

Despite sharing similarities, there are a number of key differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack: we asked a doctor to explain all.

The number of people dealing with anxiety has soared during the coronavirus pandemic. In April, a survey by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) revealed that nearly half (47%) of British adults were dealing with “high level” anxiety during the pandemic.

And even though restrictions have eased since then and we’ve been able to enjoy some ‘normality’, the anxiety caused by the coronavirus crisis continues to affect many of our lives.

Whether you’ve experienced anxiety for the first time during the pandemic, or have lived with it for a while, it can be confusing to wrap your head around the terminology used to describe some of the symptoms you might be experiencing.

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Indeed, many people believe that the terms ‘anxiety attack’ and ‘panic attack’ can be used interchangeably, when that just isn’t the case; while the two do share some similarities (they’re both the result of a disproportionate fear response), there are also a number of key differences which desperate them.

Whether you think you’ve been dealing with anxiety or panic attacks or want to learn more about them in order to help a friend or family member, we’ve got you covered.

Here, we asked Dr Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for mental health at Bupa UK, to unpack the main differences between the two conditions, including their causes, symptoms and how best to cope. 

What is the main difference between anxiety and panic attacks?

To start off with, it’s important to note that Dr Vandenabeele doesn’t use the term anxiety attack – simply because he feels that the nature of anxiety is more long-lasting and persistent. Instead, he refers to generalized anxiety – and it actually makes a lot of sense.

“Anxiety and panic attacks share some similar symptoms, but they are different,” he explains. “From a clinical perspective, anxiety is often regarded as a persistent and longer-term state of worry and tension. Panic attacks are usually relatively short-lived episodes of overwhelming anxiety, usually lasting a matter of minutes, that may be associated with a range of physical symptoms including shortness of breath, palpitations, “pins and needles”, and “butterflies” in the stomach.”

A woman having a panic attack
What is the difference between anxiety and panic attacks? “Panic attacks can come on out-of-the-blue, whilst anxiety is often associated with a trigger.”

And while the pair do share a few key symptoms and feelings, there’s one big difference between the two: their origin.

“Though the symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety can be similar, there are differences between their causes and triggers,” Dr Vandenabeele adds. “Panic attacks can come on out-of-the-blue, whilst anxiety is often associated with a trigger. These triggers vary between people and are different for everyone. Panic attacks usually happen suddenly, whilst anxiety can become gradually more intense.”

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He continues: “It’s not always possible to explain exactly why panic attacks happen. For some people panic attacks are triggered by certain situations that make them anxious, while for others they can happen for no reason.

“While panic attacks come on suddenly, symptoms of anxiety often follow a period of excessive worry or stress. Anxiety attack triggers can vary for everyone; you may experience one if you’ve had a build-up of stress, feel under pressure or isolated.”

What are the symptoms of anxiety vs those of a panic attack?

While anxiety and panic attacks do share a few key emotional and physical symptoms, there are some notable differences between how the two manifest in the body.

“Panic attacks are a type of fear response, and physical symptoms can build up very quickly,” Dr Vandenabeele says. “You may experience a racing heartbeat, pain in your chest, or nausea. You might also feel faint, dizzy or lightheaded.”

According to the NHS, other symptoms of a panic attack may include a shortness of breath, trembling, hot flushes, chills, a choking sensation, dryness in the mouth and ringing in the ears. Emotionally, symptoms can include feelings of disassociation (when you feel like you’re not connected to your body) and an intense feeling of dread.

On the other hand, the symptoms of anxiety tend to be more persistent and long-lasting – which makes sense when the NHS describes panic as “the most severe form of anxiety”. 

“Anxiety has similar physical symptoms to a panic attack; you may experience stomach cramps, trembling or feel faint,” explains Dr Vandenabeele. “You may also feel irritated or restless.”

According to the NHS, other symptoms of anxiety include muscle aches (as a result of the tension in your body), excessive sweating and difficulty falling or staying asleep. 

How long does anxiety last compared to a panic attack?

While the symptoms of anxiety may last over a longer period and be more persistent in nature, panic attacks tend to bring intense symptoms for a shorter period of time.

“Panic attacks usually reach their peak within ten minutes and can last between 20 and 30 minutes. Around one in three people experience panic attacks in their lifetime,” Dr Vandenabeele explains. “Anxiety attacks come on gradually and vary on how long they last.”

What options are available for people dealing with anxiety or panic attacks?

There are a range of treatments available for people dealing with anxiety and panic attacks, so it’s important that you seek help if the above symptoms apply.

“You may find cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps to manage anxiety and prevent future panic attacks. It’s important to speak to your GP if you’ve experienced one,” says Dr Vandenabeele.

A woman going for a walk to calm anxiety
How to help anxiety and panic attacks? “...you may find that breathing exercises and complementary therapies, such as yoga, meditation or massage, are good ways to feel calmer.”

He continues: “Medication is another method that can help to manage your anxiety or panic attacks. In the first instance, speak to your GP.”

There are also other lifestyle changes that can be helpful in managing symptoms of anxiety.

“Finding ways to feel more relaxed can help. You may find that breathing exercises and complementary therapies, such as yoga, meditation or massage, are good ways to feel calmer,” Dr Vandenabeele suggests.

“Additionally, leading a healthy lifestyle can help. Try to exercise regularly, as this will trigger a release of endorphins in your body, and this has been shown to improve your mood and reduce anxiety. Make sure you eat a healthy, balanced diet and get a good night’s sleep.”

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

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