Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks: What’s the Difference?

Your heart is racing. Your breathing is rapid. You feel nauseated. You’re paralyzed by intense feelings of fear, even though there’s no obvious reason for you to be afraid. Minutes later, it’s over. What just happened?

Did you have a panic attack or an anxiety attack?

Many people don’t understand the difference between the two, or what it means to be someone who suffers from panic or anxiety.

Take a look at some of the things that you need to know about panic, anxiety, the difference between the two, and what you can do when you suffer from one or both of these conditions.

Anxiety Attacks or Panic Attacks?

Sudden feelings of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat and breathing are most likely signs that you’re having a panic attack. Panic attacks are recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

They can be expected – that is, they can happen in response to an external trigger, such as seeing a dog when you have a phobia of dogs – or they can be unexpected, which means that they occur for no reason at all that you can identify.

Anxiety attacks are not recognized by the DSM-5. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t exist, but it does mean that they’re not clearly defined and that the term “anxiety attack” can mean different things to different people.

Many people use the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” interchangeably. They may be having what is medically defined as a panic attack, but they think of it as an anxiety attack.

Another person may feel more traditional anxiety symptoms like nervousness, restlessness, muscle tension, and difficulty concentrating or sleeping and call that an anxiety attack.

The Difference Between Anxiety and Panic

Neither panic or anxiety is a pleasant sensation and they do have some things in common. However, they are different. One of the biggest differences is the duration of the experience.

Panic tends to be short-lived. It comes on quickly and is over just as quickly. Episodes of anxiety tend to be less intense than episodes of panic, but they can last for a much longer period of time.

Anxiety symptoms may come on gradually and can persist for hours or days at a time. People who suffer from an anxiety disorder may express that they are unable to stop worrying, and this can have serious negative impacts on their quality of life.

However, they can usually still perform their ordinary daily activities with their anxiety in the background.

Panic attacks tend to be more disruptive. While someone is in the grip of a panic attack, they may not be able to do anything else. Because panic attacks are shorter-lived, they can usually resume normal activities once the attack is over.

But during the panic attack, the person is unable to focus on anything other than their feelings of fear and their body’s physiological response. A panic attack is similar to the “fight or flight” response that people experience when confronted with a threatening situation, like running into a large predatory animal.

If you are walking down the street talking on your cell phone and you run into a lion, you might drop the phone and run or freeze in place unable to move, but you probably won’t be able to continue your conversation on the phone.

On the other hand, if you’re walking down the street talking on the phone and you become anxious about the idea that you might run into a lion, you’ll probably be able to continue talking, even while feeling anxious.

Anxiety Disorders and Panic Disorders

Anyone can have a panic attack, and one panic attack is not necessarily a sign of a greater problem.

But a person who has multiple panic attacks may be suffering from a panic disorder. People who have panic disorder often suffer from anxiety over the possibility of having another panic attack, which can exacerbate the problem.

Panic disorders are highly responsive to treatment – psychotherapy and certain medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be very effective at helping people manage panic disorders.

However, people who suffer from panic disorders often feel embarrassed about their condition and sometimes fail to seek treatment. It’s important for people who have a panic disorder to understand that their condition is real and treatable and that there’s no shame in admitting to it.

Someone who frequently experiences symptoms of anxiety may also be suffering from a disorder like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is different from a panic disorder, but it can still have a severe impact on the quality of life.

People suffering from GAD may have difficulty concentrating on everyday tasks, may feel that their anxiety is draining them of energy, and may increase the risk of other conditions like depression.

Anxiety disorders and panic disorders may have similar symptoms – for example, both disorders may cause some of the same physical symptoms like heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea, and headaches.

They may also have some of the same emotional symptoms, such as feelings of fear.

While anxiety attacks may not be defined in the mainstream medical literature, anxiety disorders are.

Like panic attacks and panic disorders, anxiety attacks can be diagnosed and treated, usually with therapy, medication, or some combination of the two.

Certain self-help techniques, like meditation and deep breathing, may also be useful in easing the symptoms of anxiety disorders.


It’s normal to experience feelings of anxiety from time to time, and even to experience panic in certain situations. But experiencing anxiety all of the time, or panic when there’s no concrete reason to feel panic, can be very disruptive to a person’s life.

Diagnosis and treatment of a panic disorder or anxiety disorder can alleviate a lot of pain for the person suffering from the anxiety or panic.

Awareness of anxiety and panic disorders and support for the person seeking treatment are important in making sure that the sufferer gets the help they need to prevent anxiety or panic from disrupting their lives.

Further Reading