The Difference Between Panic and Anxiety

By To Write Love on Her ArmsJuly 26, 2022

It’s like you can feel the walls closing in and then your breath starts to speed up. There’s this all-encompassing fear that you can’t seem to place. Everything around you begins to disappear until the only thing you can focus on is how this must be your new forever.

That is a panic attack.

Or, truth be told, it may look slightly different for you. That’s the thing about panic attacks, they aren’t one-size-fits-all. However, they do usually hit suddenly and come with a variety of physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea.

And then there are anxiety attacks, which can also come on suddenly and cause a rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, and a sense of distress.

How to Differentiate Between Panic and Anxiety Attacks

It may seem challenging to distinguish between if you or someone you love is undergoing a panic attack or an anxiety attack. And while the two may seem rather similar, the key differences are as follows:

Panic Attacks

  • Panic attacks can occur with or without a trigger
  • Symptoms tend to begin abruptly
  • These symptoms remain between 5-20 minutes but can be disruptive or harmful, causing:
    • Shaking or trembling
    • Chest pain
    • Hot flashes
    • A sense of detachment

Anxiety Attacks 

  • Anxiety attacks occur due to a direct trigger
  • They build up slowly over time
  • The symptoms can last for months and can cause:
    • Restlessness
    • Fatigue
    • Muscle tension
    • Irritability

So while these terms, “anxiety attack” and “panic attack,” tend to be used interchangeably, they are actually quite different from one another. And despite medical professionals being unable to determine the root cause of why some of us undergo these experiences, they have compiled a list of potential stressors:

  • Environmental stressors
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
  • Chronic conditions or chronic pain
  • Medication side effects
  • Phobias (excessive fears of objects or situations)
  • Exposure to trauma triggers
  • Overuse of stimulants (such as caffeine)

Addressing and Treating The Two

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions across the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), it’s estimated that 19.1% of U.S. adults are diagnosed with anxiety each year. And despite anxiety having a significant impact on people’s day-to-day lives, only about 20% of people with symptoms seek treatment.

With everything we discuss, we encourage you to speak to your medical professional prior to labeling yourself with a specific diagnosis or terminology. Women are twice as likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and the Women’s Preventative Services Initiative now recommends anxiety screening for all women and girls over the age of 13.

LGBTQIA+ folks are also twice as likely to experience anxiety or panic attacks and we respect how challenging it can be to locate affirming care. If you or a loved one need support in discovering mental or physical health treatment, we recommend exploring these provider directories: The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association’s Provider Directory and the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network.

While it may seem daunting and like a never-ending uphill climb, we promise that treatment is available for you, whether you’re experiencing panic attacks, general anxiety, anxiety attacks, or all of the above.

The most common tools utilized to treat these challenges are therapy, prescription medications, and self-help techniques, such as breathing exercises.

You can also connect with a helpline to talk with a person anonymously. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a free helpline you can use at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) to access resources and support. Crisis Text Line Counselors can also be reached 24/7 by texting TWLOHA to 741741—their services are free and confidential.

What to Do During a Panic or Anxiety Attack

While we cannot promise that you won’t ever experience another panic or anxiety attack again, we can reassure you that this does not define your existence.

Our friend Angie Gibbons shared her story of living with anxiety, where she elaborates on how anxiety has displayed itself in her day-to-day life.

“If you had asked me in my 20s what anxiety looked like, I probably would have guessed that it showed up as panic or chest pain, something obvious. I didn’t have a vocabulary for it, so I was unaware that I was living with it most days at varying levels.

Anxiety was the lens through which I saw the world.

In a sense, anxiety was my way of processing life. When it blossomed into panic, it was like my body was finally saying it had had enough. The anxiety had outstripped my ability to cope, and years of it had accumulated into this beast that suddenly attacked seemingly out of nowhere.”

If you or someone you care about is experiencing a panic or anxiety attack, we hope you’ll consider these techniques:

  • Take a moment to try and acknowledge what’s happening by remembering that everything you’re feeling will subside.
  • Difficulty breathing is among the most common symptoms during a panic or anxiety attack. Trying to take one deep breath in and one deep breath out and repeating this action can dramatically reduce the fear felt.
  • Mindfulness techniques can aid in keeping some folks grounded in the present moment. Exploring the tools associated with being mindful can be beneficial.

No matter if this has been a long-term battle for you or a new challenge you’re facing, we’re here to hold the heavy with you. This does not remove your chances of living a free and whole life. There is heavy in this world and there is light and you are capable of finding joy and comfort within it.

Additional Resources

We’ve partnered with Meru Health, a digital mental health support system for those looking for short-term care and you can always access Talkspace, an online therapy platform that connects you with a licensed therapist. To help you feel less alone, we encourage you to read through the honest experiences of those facing panic or anxiety attacks on the TWLOHA Blog.

For longer-term care, we recommend seeking out a counselor. You can use our FIND HELP Tool to search by zip code for affordable, local options.

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