Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Dr. Justin Puder B.A, M.A, Ph.D
Anxiety Attack vs Panic Attack: How To Tell the Difference
Published Oct 28th, 2021 & updated on Jan 19th, 2022
Pop quiz! What is the difference between an anxiety attack vs panic attack? Are they the same thing? NOPE! As much as you might think they are the same, they’re actually two different kinds of experiences and conditions. Good thing that quiz wasn’t graded, hey? Just kidding, you’re still an A+ student in our eyes!
What Is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a scary thing to experience. Your heart feels like it’s beating out of your chest, you feel numb and tingly, you’re short of breath, and it feels like you ACTUALLY might shit yourself. Welcome, friend! You’re having a panic attack.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 to its close friends), panic attacks are a period of intense discomfort that includes at least four of the following:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
- Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensation)
- Chills or heat sensations
Well that doesn’t sound like fun, hey? Panic attacks feel like crap, but they aren’t uncommon. They like to accompany anxiety disorders and stress. You wouldn’t happen to know anyone who feels anxious or stressed, would you? Here’s a link to another article we’ve published on how to deal with a panic attack.
What Is an Anxiety Attack?
This is where it gets a bit tricky. Anxiety attacks aren’t recognized by the DSM-5 – only panic attacks, so what an anxiety attack is and what it looks like is really in the eye of the beholder. Or in this case, the anxiety-haver!
So, what does an anxiety attack feel like? Well, to complicate matters, it can feel similar to a panic attack, and that’s where people get tripped up about the difference between the two. You can also experience a panic attack and anxiety attack at the same time. UGH, SO CONFUSING!
For example, you can have many symptoms of anxiety that lead up to a certain event that results in a panic attack. The correlating anxiety symptoms and the physical panic attack symptoms often go hand in hand.
The differentiating feature of an anxiety attack is that it primarily involves worry, fear, and restlessness but does NOT have the physical symptoms listed above which would make it a panic attack.
How To Stop an Anxiety Attack
Here are a few things you can do to help yourself (or coach a friend) through an anxiety attack:
1. Deep Breathing
Stop what you’re doing. Sit down. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make sure you’re breathing through your diaphragm (your stomach should be what’s expanding, not your chest). Breathe in until your lungs are full, hold it for a second, then exhale.
2. Acknowledge What’s Happening
Remind yourself that what you’re experiencing is an anxiety attack. That means you’re not having a heart attack and you’re not going to keel over and die on the spot, even if it feels like it. As you’re taking deep breaths, tell yourself: “This is an anxiety attack. It’s going to go away because I am taking back control.”
3. Ground Yourself
Try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise! Open your eyes, and look at your surroundings. Take note of:
- 5 things you see (chair, water bottle, book, etc.)
- 4 things you can touch (your clothing, your feet on the ground, your hair, etc.)
- 3 things you hear (fan, birds, cars, etc.)
- 2 things you smell (coffee, candle, toothpaste, etc.)
- 1 thing you taste (drink, gum, candy, etc.)
Absorbing your surroundings and engaging all of your senses helps you regain a sense of control over your mind.
4. Consider What Triggered You
There are several reasons you could have experienced a panic or anxiety attack. A family history of anxiety disorders, major stress, a traumatic incident, major life changes, or past trauma can all cause you to feel like shit. Once you’re breathing normally and feeling a little calmer, consider what may have triggered you.
You might know right away, for example, if you’re a new parent and feeling stressed about taking care of a newborn… or if you were the victim of a sexual assault and unexpectedly read or saw something related. It’s possible though, that you’re just feeling shitty about *gestures broadly at everything happening in the world*. Whatever it is, try to take action to keep yourself safe from your triggers. You’re not weak, or a snowflake, or anything other than a human being looking for peace.
5. Talk to a Therapist or Other Medical Professional
If you have the means to speak with a therapist, it’s probs a good idea. Panic and anxiety attacks are no fun and while they’re not necessarily dangerous in a vacuum (assuming you’re not driving or something), they can negatively affect your health over time. Also, they usually don’t happen without an underlying cause. That could be anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or any number of other things. Working through your feelings with a therapist can be helpful. Your therapist may also recommend you take an antidepressant to help ease your symptoms.
Your first experiences with anxiety or panic attacks might cause you stress, shame, more anxiety, or other less-than-fun emotions. But remember there is nothing to be ashamed of! You didn’t do anything wrong. Your body just wanted to get your attention to let you know it needs a little help, and there’s nothing wrong with needing a little help sometimes.