Though anxiety and panic attacks may feel similar, they are fundamentally different. The causes, symptoms and associated treatments between both disorders will be outlined in this article.
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.
How does a panic attack feel?
In a nutshell, they feel real—as though the terror is wholly warranted and dying is possible. In response, your brain orders the sympathetic autonomic nervous system to activate the “flight-or-fight” response. Your body floods with various chemicals, including adrenaline, that trigger physiological changes. Your 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, a type of anxiety disorder. They generally experience frequent and unexpected panic attacks and a persistent fear of repeated attacks.
What causes panic attacks?
The causes of panic attacks are unclear, but researchers have identified common circumstances that trigger the flight or fight response, which include:
- Chronic stress causes the body to produce higher-than-usual stress hormones such as adrenaline and release them over long periods.
- Acute stress (such as experiencing a traumatic event) can suddenly flood the body with large amounts of stress hormones all at once.
- Habitual hyperventilation—forced quick breathing forces a physiological reaction and heart rate elevation. It also disturbs the balance of gases in the blood by flooding it with oxygen.
- Intense physical exercise, like hyperventilation in some people, may cause extreme reactions.
- Excessive caffeine intake—the caffeine in coffee, tea, and other beverages is a potent stimulant.
- Illnesses 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 disorder or anxiety.
- Alcohol and drug abuse.
- Allergies: adverse reactions to certain medications.
It’s essential to see your doctor for a check-up to make sure that any recurring physical panic-like symptoms are not due to illnesses, including:
- Inner ear complaints.
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland).
- Cardiac (heart) complaints.
- Post-partum (after childbirth) hyperthyroidism.
What is an anxiety attack?
An anxiety attack occurs when stress, worry, and anxiety peak. To be fair, it’s not so much an “attack” as the outcome of constant pressure and agitation, whether over significant events such as disease or death or 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 buildup period. However, it is essential to note that “anxiety attack” is a colloquial term without a strict definition, as there is no official diagnosis.
How does an anxiety attack feel?
In a nutshell, this is not good. 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. Anxiety attacks can be brief, but unlike panic attacks, they take days or 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 agitated.
- 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
It is essential to note that 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 various holistic activities, such as modifying 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 it will pass quickly.
- Deep breathing exercises, such as the 4-7-8 breath cycle.
- Performing a brief body scan, identifying the 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 interfere 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 that manifest similarly. 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.
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