Home Mental Health & Well-Being Anxiety vs Panic Attacks: Do You Know the Difference?

Anxiety vs Panic Attacks: Do You Know the Difference?

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Anxiety and panic attacks are different mental health conditions. Despite some overlap, they are distinct conditions with distinct characteristics. Understanding similarities and differences is the first step in getting the right kind of help.

Shared features

Panic attacks and anxiety share certain features. Commonly shared features are listed below. If any symptoms are present, it may be time to seek mental health treatment.

  • Physical symptoms. Both panic attacks and anxiety involve intense physical symptoms like a racing heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, stomach issues, sweating, trembling, and feeling overheated or chilled.
  • Fear and apprehension. Panic attacks and anxiety are characterised by overwhelming dread, fear, and apprehension. The individual feels something terrible is going to happen.
  • Distorted thoughts. The physical and emotional state may also cause distorted thinking patterns like catastrophising or overestimating danger during a panic attack or period of high anxiety.
  • Avoidance. People often start avoiding situations or places that have triggered panic attacks and intense anxiety in the past. This avoidance behaviour is present in both panic disorder and generalised anxiety disorder.

Differences between anxiety and panic   

While they share some attributes, key differences set generalised anxiety and panic attacks apart.

  • Onset. Anxiety develops gradually and persists at varying levels of intensity. Panic attacks have an abrupt, acute onset that seemingly comes “out of the blue”.
  • Duration. While panic and anxiety may feel similar to a racing heart, trembling, and shortness of breath, panic tends to peak and dissipate more quickly. Anxiety typically builds up gradually and can persist for longer periods of time. Recognising personal triggers for each allows for better management using relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioural therapy, or medications if necessary.
  • Triggers. Panic attacks often strike suddenly and without a clear trigger. While the exact cause is usually unknown, some factors may increase susceptibility. Stressful events or big life changes can potentially trigger panic attacks in some people. Additionally, medical conditions that affect respiration, neurological function, or blood pressure regulation may also play a role for certain individuals. Stimulant use, including caffeine, alcohol, or some medications, can serve as panic attack triggers as well. Sometimes panic attacks occur out of the blue, even in people with no known predispositions. Anxiety attacks tend to be more predictable, with identifiable situations or thoughts acting as triggers. These can include conflicts at work or home, financial stressors, excessive worrying, reminders of past trauma, public speaking, social situations, and more.
  • Management. Self-care strategies like lifestyle changes, stress management, therapy, and anti-anxiety medications can help with anxiety. Bringing panic attacks under control centres around recognising triggers, preventing full-blown attacks, and reframing fearful thoughts.

Living with anxiety and panic   

A multi-pronged approach works best for handling anxiety and recurring panic attacks:

  • Making positive lifestyle changes
  • Learning relaxation and grounding techniques
  • Identifying personal attack triggers
  • Working with a therapist
  • Practicing self-care and emotional awareness
  • Considering anti-anxiety medications  


While deeply unpleasant, neither anxiety nor panic attacks need to control your life. Various therapies help tackle the irrational fears and physical arousal at the root of anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular, can teach constructive coping strategies. 

Meanwhile, immersing oneself in panic attacks triggers gradually, while practicing relaxation techniques lessens future reactions. This exposure therapy requires professional guidance but can dramatically decrease attack frequency. Certain antidepressants may also assist by regulating brain chemicals like serotonin.

Living with anxiety or panic attacks has challenges. However, understanding the differences between these two states marks the initial step towards regaining balance and control. Getting the proper care, support, and coping tools makes all the difference in overcoming anxiety’s strong grip.

Tim Williamson, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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