Many people who have an anxiety disorder or know someone who does will often wonder about the difference between anxiety vs. panic attacks. Understanding the difference between anxiety attack vs. panic attack symptoms and causes requires an understanding of what these two different terms mean and how they are both used.

The term anxiety attack is not a clinically used or recognized term. People will often use the term to refer to a sudden episode of anxiety that is worse than normal anxiety and is temporary. An anxiety attack can refer to excessive anxiety caused by an event or situation, or it can refer to an episode of anxiety that occurred with no discernible cause.

Unlike anxiety attacks, the term panic attack has a distinct clinical definition and refers to a clinical condition. Panic attacks are episodes of debilitating fear and panic and typically last for 10-60 minutes. Panic attacks are usually caused by mental health conditions and can require treatment by health care professionals. Panic attacks may be referred to as anxiety attacks by those who do not recognize the difference, and someone who is talking about an anxiety attack may be referring to a panic attack.

What Is an Anxiety Attack?

Many people who have anxiety, or know those who struggle with anxiety, wonder, “What is an anxiety attack?” Because there is no strict clinical definition, many different experiences may be called anxiety attacks. The most commonly used context for anxiety attack would imply that an anxiety attack is an episode of uncontrolled and heightened anxiety that may or may not be due to stressful situations.

Anxiety is a normal response to stress and can be helpful in stressful situations by providing the focus and energy needed to help with that particular situation. An episode of anxiety is expected when performing in front of a group of people or before asking someone on a date. In these situations, some uncontrolled and heightened anxiety may be helpful. 

Episodes of anxiety may, however, sometimes occur without an obvious reason or may occur out of proportion to what should be expected. Typically, when people talk about anxiety attacks, that disproportionate response is what they are referring to. Uncontrolled anxiety that seems to be out of proportion to the circumstances can be very disruptive and can affect a person’s daily life.

Are Anxiety Attacks Real?

Because of the ambiguous meaning of the term anxiety attack, people sometimes wonder, “Are anxiety attacks real?” However, just because there is no specific definition for anxiety attacks does not mean that an episode of anxiety was not real. While the term anxiety attack is not a real medical term, the anxiety that is experienced is very real. 

Episodes of increased anxiety can occur, sometimes affecting people’s normal daily routines. Often these episodes are not so severe that they could be classified as a panic attack, but they are still definitely experienced. These episodes of anxiety are not necessarily under the control of the person experiencing them. 

Anxiety can be related to subconscious thought or circumstances which can cause anxious thoughts without the person being fully aware of the cause of their anxiety. Just because there is no exact definition of the term anxiety attack does not mean that these episodes of anxiety are not real. Someone who is having an anxiety attack will benefit much more from support and empathy than from having their experience questioned.

Panic Attack Definition

People who are familiar with anxiety might ask a clarifying question like, “What is a panic attack?” Panic attacks are defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), the clinical handbook on mental health disorders, as episodes of severe fear and anxiety and are completely uncontrollable.

Panic attacks can cause palpitations, sweating, trembling, feelings of choking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness and extreme fear. The typical panic attack duration is between 10-60 minutes, with most panic attacks being about 20-30 minutes.

Panic attacks should be diagnosed by physicians or other medical professionals who are trained to diagnose panic attacks. These attacks can occur independently and may be a random occurrence unrelated to any mental health condition. People with no previous history may experience a panic attack and then may never experience another one again. 

While panic attacks can be random occurrences, they can often be caused by, or be part of, a mental health disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, causes panic attacks that can occur after a traumatic experience when someone is sleeping or when someone is exposed to something that reminds them of the traumatic event. A psychiatrist will be able to determine if the episodes being experienced are panic attacks and if these panic attacks are being caused by an underlying mental illness. 

DSM-5 Panic Attack Criteria

To diagnose a panic attack, DSM-5 criteria and methodology must be followed. The panic attack diagnostic criteria requires that at least four panic attack symptoms be present. These panic attack symptoms include:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • A 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

Trained physicians are the only ones who should diagnose panic attacks, as they are able to recognize if someone truly has four or more of these symptoms. Physicians are also able to rule out other causes of these symptoms.

While these symptoms can indicate a panic attack, several of these symptoms, such as chest pain and problems breathing, can indicate something more serious, such as a heart attack. If you are having any of these symptoms and have never been diagnosed with panic attacks, you should immediately call 911 and be evaluated to ensure that you are not actually experiencing a heart attack or any other serious medical condition.

Clinical vs. Colloquial Terms

The key difference between the term panic attack and the term anxiety attack is that panic attack is a clinical term whereas anxiety attack is a colloquial term. 

Clinical terms are those that are used in the health care profession and have a specific definition. Terms that are used in the medical field are very precise and have specific meanings. When health care professionals use the term panic attack they are specifically referring to episodes that meet the DSM-5 criteria for a panic attack. This terminology allows medical personnel to better communicate with each other about specific medical conditions and treatments.

Colloquial terms are terms that have developed a meaning from their general use in society and may not have a specific meaning. The term anxiety attack will not normally be used in the health care community, but may sometimes be used by an individual to describe their unique experience. 

Health care workers will not use the term anxiety attack when communicating with each other, as it does not have a specific meaning and could be interpreted differently by different people. While the term anxiety attack may not be used in clinical settings, that does not mean it doesn’t have a place. Anxiety attack has an understood meaning in society and can communicate that someone had an episode of extreme and uncontrolled anxiety.

How Anxiety Can Lead to a Panic Attack

People who have anxiety and are worried about developing panic attacks may wonder, “What causes panic attacks?” There is definitely a connection between anxiety and panic attacks, especially many of the isolated panic attacks that are unrelated to a mental health condition. 

Increased stress and anxiety can be a risk factor for experiencing panic attacks, and previously healthy people may sometimes experience an anxiety attack when exposed to significant stress. While increased stress and anxiety may lead to panic attacks, it is normally a temporary experience, and the panic attacks will often no longer be experienced once the stress or anxiety-inducing situation has been resolved.

Anxiety disorders which stem from mental health conditions may also cause panic attacks. Mental health conditions that cause panic attacks, such as panic disorder, may make panic attacks that occur more than once and may even cause multiple panic attacks in a short time frame. Someone who has frequent panic attacks should seek help from a medical professional and follow the treatment that they prescribe.

Why It’s Important to Understand the Difference

Understanding the difference between the terms anxiety attack and panic attack is essential. Understanding these two terms will help people better understand a health care provider’s terminology and how to better communicate with them. 

Understanding these two different terms will also help people understand the differences in treatment between the two. Anxiety attacks will be treated like general episodes of anxiety would be. In contrast, panic attacks will be treated in a different way, often with more intense interventions. Panic attacks may also require treating an underlying mental health disorder. By understanding the differences between the two terms, a person will be better equipped to understand the type of treatments being used for each and why those treatment options are chosen.

Treatment Strategies

Managing anxiety attacks will typically focus on managing anxiety overall. As anxiety attacks are generally an episodic worsening of anxiety, treating anxiety in general will help to also reduce the frequency and severity of anxiety attacks. 

Anxiety may be managed by following natural self-treatments, such as: 

  • Exercise
  • Diet modification
  • Yoga
  • Meditation

If self-treatment of anxiety doesn’t work, or does not seem like it would help, then medical treatment may be necessary. This method could include the use of therapy, medications or a combination of both. By following treatment for anxiety, anxiety attacks should be helped.

Panic attack treatment is more in-depth and requires treatment by a health care professional. Typically, treatment for panic attacks starts by examining the underlying cause. Panic attacks can be isolated incidences that may rarely, or never, recur, and may not require treatment in this situation. 

Panic attacks that occur more than once, however, should typically cause a physician to consider the presence of an underlying mental health condition. Panic attacks may be caused by generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD or other mental illnesses. If a mental health condition is causing the panic attacks, then treatment of the panic attacks will involve treatment of the mental illness. This approach may require: 

  • Therapy
  • Medications
  • Hospitalization, in more severe cases

Key Points: Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

There is a lot of confusion in the general public about the terms anxiety attack and panic attack. These terms are often used interchangeably and people often are unaware of if there is a difference between the two terms. 

Some of the key differences between anxiety attacks and panic attacks include:

  • Anxiety attack is a colloquial term without a strict definition
  • Panic attack is a medical term with a strict definition
  • Anxiety attacks cannot be diagnosed and are a subjective experience 
  • Panic attacks must be diagnosed using the DSM-5
  • Anxiety attacks are treated by taking care of underlying anxiety
  • Panic attack treatment can involve treating an underlying mental health condition

Some other key points to remember about anxiety attacks and panic attacks include:

  • Anxiety can lead to a panic attack
  • Sometimes people dismiss panic attacks as anxiety attacks
  • Panic attacks can be isolated incidences, but often indicate a mental health condition
  • Heart attacks or other serious conditions may be mistaken for panic attacks.

If you or a loved one are having symptoms of a panic attack and have never been officially diagnosed with panic attacks, or the panic attack symptoms are different than normal, you should immediately call 911. It may not be a panic attack and could be a serious medical emergency.

If you or a loved one have panic attacks or anxiety attacks and struggle with a substance use disorder, then you should seek medical help. The Recovery Village has a strong track record of providing addiction treatment to those who also have a co-occurring mental health disorder. Reach out to one of our understanding representatives to learn how we can help you begin your road to recovery today.