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The Difference Between An Anxiety Attack and Panic Attack

Updated: Feb 6, 2019



The terms anxiety attack and panic attack are often used interchangeably, which is understandable given the overlap in emotional and physical symptoms. What’s more, they can both happen to anyone – with or without anxiety – and at times, simultaneously.


However, it’s important to learn about the distinction between the two so that it can be addressed in a more targeted manner. For example, misdiagnosing an anxiety attack for a panic attack could prevent you from taking the necessary measures to prevent and reduce anxiety.


What Happens During an Anxiety Attack and Panic Attack


First, let’s understand where and how these two conditions overlap. Both types of attacks can have the following symptoms: [1]

  • Apprehension and worry

  • Restlessness

  • Fear

  • Heart palpitations

  • Chest pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Tightness in throat

  • Dry mouth

  • Sweating

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Chills or hot flashes

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Nausea, upset stomach

  • Abdominal pain

  • Headache

  • Feeling faint or dizzy


The Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and Panic Attack


Panic attacks include a set of additional, distinctive symptoms:

  • Fear of dying

  • Losing control

  • Feeling like you’re going crazy

  • A sense of detachment from the world

In addition to these intense feelings, the physical symptoms also tend to be more severe, such as chest pain, shortness of breath and fast heart rate. Panic attacks are also:

  • Shorter in duration, typically under 30 minutes

  • More abrupt; can occur out of the blue without an external stressor

  • Often mistaken for a heart attack

In contrast, an anxiety attack is:

  • Brought on more gradually; it takes time to build and can last a long time

  • Related to the anticipation of a stressful situation or event e.g. presentation, social situation, work deadline, appointment

According to Ricks Warren, Ph.D, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, from a biological standpoint panic attacks are ‘associated with the autonomic nervous system and the amygdala — places designed to detect threat and danger. Anxiety is associated with the prefrontal cortex, which has to do with planning and anticipating.’ [2]

If you are unsure whether you suffer from anxiety or panic attack, you can visit a doctor who will perform a physiological examination and help you pinpoint the issue.


Causes of Anxiety Attacks and Panic Attacks


Anxiety attacks always have a cause associated, whereas panic attacks can occur without cause. Below are some common causes and risk factors for both: [1]


Causes:

  • Work

  • Social encounters

  • Phobias

  • Driving

  • Illness

  • Memories of trauma

  • Chronic pain

  • Certain medication and supplements

  • Withdrawal from drugs and alcohol

  • Thyroid problems

Risk Factors:

  • Being a woman

  • Witnessing a traumatic event

  • Experiencing a stressful life event e.g. death, divorce

  • Ongoing stress

  • Anxiety

  • Living with chronic illness

  • Living with/having loved ones with a mental health disorder

  • Abusing drugs and/or alcohol

How To Handle Anxiety Attacks


Responding to anxiety attacks with fear leads to even more anxiety attacks; the key to conquering an anxiety attack is to become unafraid of them. This is done by understanding the physiological, psychological and emotional components that lead to an attack – this knowledge will no longer make an anxiety attack a mystery with the potential to scare you.


You can also try the following strategies to help calm down:

  • Deep breathing: taking long, deep breaths help turn off the ‘flight or fight response’, and switches the brain over to the parasympathetic mode, called ‘rest and digest’.

  • Walk around: encourage blood flow and control hyperventilation

  • Distract yourself: try counting, organizing something at home, reading a book, playing a game, watching a show...anything that will take your mind away from the stress response.

How to Prevent Anxiety Attacks


Whether you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder or are occasionally anxious, the following tips can help minimize anxiety and the chances of an attack:

  • Mindful meditation: meditation is able to train the mind to become more calm and relaxed; it helps weaken the neural connections to the ‘fight or flight’ centre of the brain – the amygdala – where emotions such as fear and anger reside, while simultaneously strengthening the connection to the assessment centre of the brain – the lateral prefrontal cortex – where rational thought, logic and reason originate. [3]

  • Manage anxiety with natural supplementation: certain herbs and nutrients such as ashwagandha, holy basil, ginseng, passionflower and l-theanine have been shown to reduce anxiety levels and improve relaxation. For example, Veeva’s Anxiety Formula contains all five ingredients and has been licensed to treat anxiety by Health Canada.

  • Exercise regularly: not only does exercise release built up tension, it also releases endorphins that relax the mind and regulate mood

  • Eat a healthy diet: avoid foods that trigger anxiety such as sugar, dairy, wheat, fast food/junk food, hydrogenated oils, processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol. Aim to eat a real, whole foods based diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean protein and good fats e.g. olive oil, avocados, fatty fish

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