panic attack or anxiety attack?

I’ve received loads of messages from people saying they think they’ve had a panic attack! This may be true or there is a possibility it isn’t. Hence, it’s important to understand what a panic attack is as well as its symptoms.

There is actually a big difference between anxiety attacks and panic attacks.

Personally, I think the best way to understand how they differ is probably to explain what they both are separately and see the differences between them. It is important to remember that panic and anxiety attacks are different for everyone as people can experience different symptoms!

Let’s start with panic attacks:

Usually when you have a panic attack the symptoms come suddenly and are quite intense, without having much of a build up.

Panic attacks only last up to about 20 minutes but symptoms commonly reach their peak after around 10 minutes then start to fade away.

The DSM definition of a panic attack:

An abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes.


  • Palpitations,
  • pounding heart/fast heart rate,
  • Sweating,
  • Trembling/shaking,
  • Shortness of breath,
  • A feeling of choking,
  • Chest pain,
  • Nausea,
  • Feeling dizzy,
  • Lightheaded,
  • Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself (depersonalization),
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy,
  • Fear of dying,
  • Numbness or tingling sensations.

You tend to find people who have panic attacks are convinced they’re having a heart attack.

So then what are anxiety attacks?

An anxiety attack usually has a build up where you are feeling anxious and on edge for a length of time before an attack starts, the symptoms tend to get more intense over a period of time until they reach their peak.

Symptoms are similar to panic attack but not as intense however can last longer.


    Muscle tension,
    Shortness of breath.

The difference between them is mainly to do with symptoms severity and how long symptoms last.

A panic attack comes suddenly and instantly, lasts for 20 minutes and symptoms usually start to fade away.

On the other hand anxiety attacks have a build up to them and are physically less intense than a panic attack.

Another important difference is panic attacks come from panic disorder but anxiety attacks are not from anxiety disorder, meaning one is caused by a mental illness whereas the other isn’t.

Anxiety attacks are usually caused by a stressor this is where you have something causing you stress for example work stress or financial problems etc. You may be constantly working to the point where it could be considered as an anxiety attack as your symptoms may be persistent and last for days, weeks and even months. The symptoms of anxiety attacks usually fade away as the stressor does.

In contrast panic attacks are unpredictable and occur for seemingly no reason as there is sometimes no identifiable stressor.

To summarise:

During an anxiety attack, people may feel fearful, apprehensive, may feel their heart racing or feel short of breath, but it’s very short lived, and when the stressor goes away, so does the anxiety attack.

Panic attacks on the other hand doesn’t come in reaction to a stressor. It’s unpredictable. With panic attacks people usually feel a sense of immediate threat. This causes them to respond by crying for help or trying to escape.

Panic attacks don’t appear to happen in reaction to a stressor or trigger, and often feel like they come out of nowhere. These attacks can also happen back to back and tend to be more intense than what someone might experience in an anxiety attack.

The severity of symptoms in panic attacks tends to be greater than those of anxiety attacks. Because they come on suddenly, panic attacks can be incredibly debilitating or embarrassing.

This is why many people with panic disorder find that they are limited in their ability to live their life because they are worried about when the next panic attack will strike.

It can be very easy to mix the two together as they have many similarities, but I hope you now understand the differences :).

Thanks for reading!



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