Mental Health

The Difference Between Panic Attacks And Anxiety Attacks

It is not unusual to hear people use the phrases ‘panic attack’ and ‘anxiety attack’ colloquially. These two experiences share common symptoms such as rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, and a sense of distress. And while no harm is intended, knowing the difference between the two (spoiler: they’re not the same) gives licence to more people to speak about their conditions and experiences, and to seek appropriate help. 

What Is A Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe psychological and physiological reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. They appear to come out of nowhere, even during sleep. 

What Does A Panic Attack Feel Like?

In a nutshell: they feel real - as though the terror is completely warranted and dying is a possibility. 

In response, the brain orders the sympathetic autonomic nervous system to activate the ‘flight-or-fight’ response. The body is flooded with a range of chemicals, including adrenaline, that trigger physiological changes. For example, heart rate and breathing are accelerated and blood is shifted to the muscles to prepare for physical combat or running away.

People who experience panic attacks also report sweating, shortness of breath, trembling and shaking, dizziness and lightheadedness, nausea and tears. 

Many people, about 35% of the population, experience occasional panic attacks.  A person who experiences recurring panic attacks may be diagnosed with panic disorder, which is a type of anxiety disorder. They generally experience recurring and unexpected panic attacks and persistent fear of repeated attacks.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

Causes of panic attacks are unclear but researchers have identified some common circumstances that trigger the flight or fight response, and include: 

  • Chronic stress – this causes the body to produce higher than usual levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and to release them over long periods of time.

  • Acute stress (such as experiencing a traumatic event) – this can suddenly flood the body with large amounts of stress hormones all at once.

  • Habitual hyperventilation – forced quick breathing forces a physiological reaction and the elevation of heart rate. It also disturbs the balance of gases in the blood by flooding it with oxygen.  

  • Intense physical exercise – like with hyperventilation, for some people, this may cause extreme reactions.

  • Excessive caffeine intake – the caffeine in coffee, tea and other beverages is a strong stimulant.

  • Illness – may cause physical changes.

  • A sudden change of environment – such as walking into an overcrowded, hot or stuffy environment.

  • Triggers such as phobias.

  • Family history of panic or anxiety order.

  • Alcohol and drug abuse.

  • Allergies – adverse reactions to certain medications.


It’s important to see your doctor for a check-up to make sure that any recurring physical panic-like symptoms are not due to illnesses, including:

  • Diabetes

  • Asthma

  • Inner ear complaints

  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)

  • Cardiac (heart) complaints

  • Post-partum (after childbirth) hyperthyroidism


What Is An Anxiety Attack?

When stress, worry, and anxiety reach their pinnacle, an anxiety attack occurs. To be fair, it’s not so much an ‘attack’, but more the outcome of constant anxiety and agitation, whether over major events such as disease or death or over more trivial matters and everyday concerns. An anxiety attack is a manifestation of anxiety at its pinnacle. These are instances of intense worry, fear, and dread that, like panic attacks, can cause physical symptoms. Unlike panic attacks, however, they feel more predictable, since there is a period of ‘build up’. It is important to note however that ‘anxiety attack’ is a colloquial term without a strict definition, as there is no official diagnosis of it.


What Does An Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

Not good, in a nutshell. To be clear - there are degrees of anxiety. Many people experience mild anxiety every day and they cope well. But as anxiety builds, these instances feel more intense and debilitating. Like panic attacks, anxiety attacks can be quite brief, but unlike panic attacks, they can take days or even weeks to build up before triggering an attack. The symptoms are more intense than just feeling anxious but less severe than a panic attack. Some signs might be:

  • Feeling especially agitated or tense

  • Having trouble focusing or having moments where your mind is blank

  • Having trouble suppressing your worries

  • Muscle tension

  • Issues with sleep (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)

  • Tiring quickly

  • Restlessness

It is important to note an anxiety attack may occasionally precede a panic attack. For instance, some people who have previously suffered panic attacks on a plane may have had an anxiety attack while travelling to the airport.


What To Do When Suffering A Panic Or Anxiety Attack

You can manage anxiety or panic attacks in a variety of ways. You can calm yourself down naturally by engaging in a variety of holistic activities, such as making little modifications to your lifestyle. Mental health experts can also teach you a variety of different coping mechanisms.

Understanding the signs of anxiety or panic attacks and using the following techniques can help you manage them:

  • Recognising that you are having an episode and telling yourself that it will pass quickly.

  • Deep breathing exercises, such as the 4-7-8 breath cycle.

  • Performing a brief body scan, identifying the area of tension in your body, and shaking that area to relieve it.

  • Practice mindfulness or meditation, longer term, to reset or alleviate the nervous system of the tensions so that anxiety does not build up.

  • Practising Creative Visualisation, when you spend a few minutes daydreaming about being in a serene, joyful location, such as a beach or a mountain, before returning to your regular activities.

If panic or anxiety attacks are interfering with your ability to carry out your day-to-day activities, you should seek professional help. Check with your medical practitioner first to rule out any underlying medical issues first that manifest in similar ways. Then, it would be wise to consult a therapist or mental health expert who can assist you in determining the source of your anxiety and teach you coping strategies that will minimise instances of these attacks.

Written by:
31 August 2022