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The difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack

What is the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack? We asked a doctor to unpick the misconceptions around these surprisingly common mental health conditions.

Although more than one in 10 people in the UK are likely to have a “disabling anxiety disorder” at some stage in their life, according to statistics from Anxiety UK, the conversation surrounding the subject still remains pretty taboo. 

Of course, it’s more acceptable than ever to open up and talk about our experiences when it comes to mental health, but when it comes to the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks – whether that’s the physical symptoms such as sweating or trembling or less obvious side effects such as needing to leave a particularly triggering situation – the conversation becomes less fluid.

But it’s about time that changed. Anxiety and panic attacks are hard enough on their own, without the people dealing with the conditions being made to feel ashamed – so it’s on all of us to educate ourselves so we can understand how people are feeling and what they’re going through.

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With that considered, we wanted to tackle one of the most common misconceptions when it comes to anxiety: that the terms “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” can be used interchangeably. The two do share some similarities (they’re both the result of a disproportionate fear response), but there are also a number of key differences which separate them. 

Whether you think you may be dealing with anxiety or panic attacks or just want to learn more about the two 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.”

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