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

Intensity and How Long an Attack Lasts Are Two of the Differences

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

Do you wonder what the difference is between anxiety attacks and panic attacks? You might hear them used in conversation as if they mean the same thing. However, from a clinical perspective, panic and anxiety have different features, and behavioral health professionals use the terms for specific symptoms and disorders. Learn more about how these conditions differ and what that may mean if you have anxiety or panic attacks.

Clinical Differences of Panic and Anxiety Disorders

Professionals who treat panic and anxiety problems base their diagnoses on definitions from the handbook, "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition," which is called the DSM-5 in short. The DSM-5 uses the term panic attack to describe the hallmark features associated with the condition known as panic disorder. However, 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 headings of, “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 intensity of the symptoms and length of time the main symptoms occur. The in-depth definitions in the DSM-5 guide your health provider to make a diagnosis and classify your condition.

Here are some of the basics panic and anxiety from the DSM-5

Panic Attack

During a panic attack, the symptoms are sudden and extremely intense. These symptoms usually occur “out of the blue.” The symptoms peak within 10 minutes and then they 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

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. 

A Word From Verywell

Anxiety and panic attacks can disrupt your everyday life. Whether you experience them or you want to understand what a friend or loved one goes through, know that help is available. Explore the options available so you can get relief.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Fifth edition). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

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