Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are hard to distinguish for the untrained eye. I’ve experienced both, and I struggle to tell them apart sometimes. Knowing how to identify them helps to cope appropriately, so I reached out to mental health professionals for answers. Here’s what you need to know about anxiety and panic attacks.

‘Panic attack’ is the official term; ‘anxiety attack’ is informal.

It may seem like trivia, but it’s not. Eric Patterson, a licensed professional counselor at Choosing Therapy, explains why terminology matters:

“A panic attack is a diagnosable mental health issue observed within disorders like panic disorder and social anxiety disorder. On the other hand, an anxiety attack is a term non-professionals use to describe increased anxiety symptoms. Experienced mental health clinicians will only use the terms panic attack and anxiety. They will not use the term “anxiety attack” because it will confuse clients and their families.

After all, they are distinct from each other. If someone is feeling extreme fear, worry, and a host of physical symptoms like flushed skin, sweating, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and tightness in the chest, it could be a panic attack. When someone has periods of higher stress and anxiety, people may label it as an anxiety attack. Note that it will be less intense and generally last longer than a panic attack. In contrast, panic attacks are short-lived, more intense, and have a clear beginning and end.”

Panic attacks are sudden and short-lived. Anxiety attacks are gradual and long-lasting.

Dr. Rashmi Parmar, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry, says that although they seem similar, they are notably different.

“A panic attack is unique in the way it begins. It will usually occur out of the blue and take you by surprise. These kinds of panic attacks are untriggered, [but] some panic attacks have a trigger. For example, when someone with a snake phobia encounters a snake, the snake is the trigger that causes them to have a panic attack. An anxiety attack occurs due to preexisting worries or anxiety triggers and is not entirely unexpected. For example, consider that a person long afraid of the dark gets stuck in an elevator at night. How will they react to this trigger? They are highly likely to have an anxiety attack as a result.”

Their intensity varies

“A panic attack has a sudden onset with a quick rise in intensity,” he adds. “While it typically lasts for 5-10 minutes, the after-effects may persist for the next few hours or up to a day.

An anxiety attack is gradual at the onset and builds up over time. Anxiety that has been built up for hours, even days, is responsible for it. Therefore, it takes a long time to become less severe. And it may persist as long as the person remains exposed to the trigger that caused it. 

There’s a stark difference in the intensity of symptoms in both of these attacks. A panic attack is usually much more intense in severity. It is severe enough to cause significant disruption the moment it strikes. A person will usually be unable to function or carry on a task at hand while experiencing a panic attack. It warrants immediate measures. This can include removing yourself from an uncomfortable situation or engaging in relaxation and breathing techniques.

The above measures can help with anxiety attacks as well. However, a person may function relatively better during the mild phases of a long anxiety attack. Even if they don’t take any action to deal with it, they can go on with their day.”

The body reacts similarly in both cases. 

Dr. Isaac Tourgeman, a clinical neuropsychologist at Design Neuroscience Center, explains how the body is affected: 

“In both instances, the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated due to a perceived or previously experienced threat. The body and the mind get a rush of adrenaline and other hormones, which causes us to experience increased heart rate, respiration, and muscle tension, along with other symptoms. 

No matter what you experience, do not disregard the occurrence. This is your body’s way of telling you that something is affecting you negatively. Don’t be afraid to consult a mental health professional for help. This is all the more imperative when your quality of life has declined as a result.”

The mental effects are easy to distinguish.

“You are more likely to encounter feelings of detachment from yourself or the environment during a panic attack,” says Dr. Rashmi Parmar. “These are called depersonalization (former) and derealization (latter). And they are uncommon during an anxiety attack.

Another symptom common in a panic attack is an overwhelming feeling of dread, an intense fear that something terrible is happening, or losing control over self. Some people may even feel as if they are about to pass out or experience tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is when you lose the ability to see something unless it is right in front of you.

Most of the other physical symptoms are common for both anxiety and panic attacks. These include palpitations, difficulty breathing, throat tightness, heat sensation, tingling, or numbness of extremities. They also include chest discomfort/pain, nausea, sweating, trembling, lightheadedness, or dizziness.

A person can suffer from both types of attacks. In fact, they can also experience them simultaneously.”

Have you experienced an anxiety attack or a panic attack? What coping mechanism did you use to overcome it? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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