Anxiety vs. Panic Attacks: What's the Difference?

Anxiety attacks vs panic attacks
Anxiety attacks and panic attacks differ in some key ways. undefined

The terms anxiety attacks and panic attacks are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. In that sense, the difference is purely a matter of semantics. However, this is not true when we look at these terms from a clinical perspective, in which case panic and anxiety are defined by different features.

Clinical Differences of Panic and Anxiety Disorders

When determining a person's diagnosis, professionals who treat panic and anxiety use a handbook called the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition," or simply shortened to the DSM-5.

The DSM-5 uses the term panic attack to describe the hallmark features associated with the condition known as panic disorder, although panic attacks may occur in other psychiatric disorders.

The term “anxiety attack” is not defined in the DSM 5. Rather, anxiety is used to describe a core feature of several illnesses identified under the headline, “Anxiety Disorders," "Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders," and "Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders.” Some of the most common disorders under these three headings include:

The differences between panic and anxiety are best described in terms of the intense symptoms and length of time the predominant symptoms occur. Below is listed clear definitions of each term.

These definitions include the symptoms that are typically associated with each condition. 

Panic Attack

During a panic attack, the symptoms are sudden and extremely intense. These symptoms usually occur “out of the blue,” peak within 10 minutes, and then subside. However, some attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins.

Following an attack, it is not unusual to feel stressed, worried, out-of-sorts, or "keyed up" the remainder of the day. 

According to the DSM-5, a panic attack is characterized by four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  • Chills or hot flashes


Anxiety, on the other hand, generally intensifies over a period of time and is highly correlated to excessive worry about some potential "danger." The symptoms of anxiety are very similar to the symptoms of panic attacks and may include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Increased startle response
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness

While some of these symptoms are similar to many of the symptoms associated with panic attacks, they are generally less intense.

Another important distinction is that, unlike a panic attack, the symptoms of anxiety may be persistent and very long-lasting—days, weeks, or even months.

Treatment for Panic and Anxiety Attacks

Whether you’re dealing with panic, persistent anxiety or both, effective treatment is available. Some of the most common treatment options include therapy, prescribed medications, and self-help strategies. You may decide to try one or any combination of these methods.

Therapy can help you develop ways to manage your symptoms, work through past hurts, determine your path for the future, and gain a clearer perspective that will allow for a more positive current outlook.

Medications can assist you in reducing the severe symptoms, while self-help techniques can be beneficial in allowing you to work through symptom management at your own pace. 


American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., " 2013 Washington, DC: Author.

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