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Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack: Understanding Symptoms, Triggers, and Treatment

Written By Stuart Croft
Reviewed By Tiffany Green
Medically Reviewed By Dr David Barker
Updated June 14, 2024

Let’s start with an analogy to explain the differences between a panic attack and an anxiety attack.

Imagine you’re driving down a road. All is well, right until the moment you hit a massive invisible pothole at speed. In an instant, your car is jolting violently and out of control, feeling like it could crash at any second. The experience is intense, unexpected, and completely out of your control. You close your eyes, grab the wheel with all your might, and scream. This is a panic attack. 

An anxiety attack, on the other hand, is like driving along a long stretch of pothole-riddled road. You can see them coming and each pothole isn’t as intense as the invisible pothole; however, the continuous jarring and the need to be on high alert make you tense, uneasy, and exhausted. You are unable to relax and enjoy the ride, and you are constantly on high alert to avoid the next bump.

In essence, a panic attack is a sudden and severe jolt of fear accompanied by a range of physical symptoms. In contrast, anxiety attacks are characterised by prolonged periods of worry and tension due to ongoing stressors. If you’ve ever experienced either of these attacks, you’ll know just how unsettling and disruptive they can be. The memory of the event often lingers, leading to ongoing worry and further disruption even after the attack has passed.

This article will aim to put these two conditions into perspective, helping you understand their differences, triggers, symptoms, and when to seek professional treatment.

Anxiety Attacks

What is an anxiety attack?

Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) clearly defines anxiety as ‘excessive worry and apprehensive expectations, occurring more days than not for at least 6 months’ and includes a list of anxiety disorders, ‘anxiety attack’ isn’t among them. In fact, ‘anxiety attack’ isn’t a medical term but rather a colloquial one used to describe what is commonly diagnosed as a generalised anxiety disorder. 

Anxiety attacks cause one to respond with fear, anxiety, and apprehension about future situations, experiences, or events. While almost everyone will experience apprehension or uncertainty about the future at some point, those suffering from anxiety attacks experience this worry at a more intense level, making it difficult to focus on anything other than the perceived challenges and negativity in their way. It’s like walking around with an unshakable ‘pit of worry’ that constantly demands every ounce of your attention. 

Anxiety attacks can have a gradual or sudden onset and last for anywhere from a few hours to weeks on end. Their severity and length depend on several factors, including the individual’s ability to deal with stressors, changes in the environment (increase/decrease of stressors), substance abuse, and access to treatment and/or anxiety medication.

Anxiety attack triggers

Anxiety attacks can be triggered by a poor or maladapted response to stressors or as a response to substance abuse or other medical conditions. Typical external stressors that can induce a state of persistent anxiety include ‘toxic’ relationships, financial worries, and problems at work. Internal stressors, such as trauma or other co-existing mental health disorders, may also contribute to anxiety attacks.  

Symptoms of an anxiety attack

While anxiety attacks are largely associated with mental or psychological symptoms such as a buildup of anxiety and persistent feelings of fear and worry, anxiety attacks can also cause disruptive and physically uncomfortable symptoms. While this varies between individuals, some of the more commonly reported physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nausea and upset stomach
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate

(Chand and Marwaha)

When to seek help for anxiety attacks

Despite the feelings of unease and desperation that an anxiety attack can induce, it’s not necessary to seek professional help in dealing with a once-off anxiety attack. Stress and anxiety are natural responses to many of life’s challenges, and you’ll undoubtedly experience spells of increased anxiety at some point. As long as they’re not persistent or affect your ability to meet your responsibilities at home or work, you have several non-medical options for treating excessive stress and anxiety, including lifestyle changes, exercise, and reducing alcohol, nicotine, or other harmful substance intake. 

If, however, your anxiety reaches the point where it starts interfering with your daily life and the ability to meet your responsibilities, seeking professional help is highly recommended. While a physician might prescribe anti-anxiety medication that will help alleviate the symptoms in the short term, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and other psychological therapies have been proven effective in providing long-term relief from anxiety disorder (Curtiss). CBT teaches patients to critically evaluate their thought processes, allowing them to relate to their environment with more confidence, resilience, and surety.

Panic Attacks

What is a panic attack?

Unlike anxiety attacks, the DSM-5 recognises panic attacks as a distinct medical condition. They are characterised by sudden and intense feelings of panic, emotional distress, and physical symptoms that mimic those of a heart attack. 

Panic attacks can further be subdivided into different types. Expected, cued, or situational panic attacks are those caused by situations that have caused stress in the past and could include phobias or stressful situations such as exams, while unexpected or uncued panic attacks are often a sign of panic disorder and could set on without warning or any clear cause. Those suffering from nocturnal panic attacks might suddenly awaken in a panic, convinced that something is wrong. Other types of panic attacks include situationally predisposed panic attacks and limited-symptom panic attacks. 

Panic attacks have a very short onset period and can cause one to go from calm to a full state of panic within just a few seconds. This rapid onset can be particularly distressing, especially when the cause isn’t easily identifiable, when it’s one’s first panic attack and they don’t know what to expect, or when someone is sure they’re having a heart attack. Panic attacks typically last between 5 and 15 minutes, with the symptoms reaching their peak intensity anywhere within a few to 10 minutes after onset. While it’s possible, it’s rare for panic attacks to last more than 30 minutes. Recovery varies from minutes to hours, during which time the individual may feel emotionally drained, jittery, and fatigued. 

Panic attack triggers

Panic attack triggers are incredibly diverse and vary widely between individuals. Typical causes include stressful times or unexpected life events such as job loss, divorce, or the death of a loved one; medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism, respiratory disorders, or substance abuse; genetic factors and predisposition to panic attacks; environmental factors such as exposure to phobias and reminders of trauma; and co-occurring mental health disorders such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Recognising and understanding panic attack triggers is a critical step in managing panic attacks and reducing their frequency and intensity.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Panic attacks cause sudden and intense psychological discomfort with accompanying physical symptoms that mimic those of cardiac arrest. Psychological symptoms could include the individual becoming more and more convinced that something terrible is about to happen and/or that they’re about to die, while the physical symptoms could include any combination of:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Choking sensation
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Numbness or tingling

(Cackovic et al.)

When to seek help for panic attacks

Panic attacks are terrifying, and we cannot fault anyone for seeking help after even a single attack. That being said, much like with anxiety attacks, a single or isolated episode does not necessarily mean that professional help or therapy is required. If, however, someone experiences regular panic attacks that become disruptive (constantly worrying about the next panic attack, panic attacks at work, thoughts of suicide, etc.), professional medical assistance can go a long way in reclaiming normality. 

Similar to anxiety attacks, panic attacks can be managed or even eliminated through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), other psychological therapies, and, in some cases, medical intervention.

Residential treatment for anxiety and panic disorders

Anxiety and panic disorders, though terrible to experience, both respond well to personalised therapies that identify and treat the unique causes and underlying conditions behind these disorders. While daycare or regular visits to a mental health professional can yield incredible results, those suffering from extreme or frequent anxiety and panic attacks can benefit even more from a residential stay and an intensive 4-week counselling programme. 

Gladstones Clinic has a 20-year history of helping people overcome a wide range of mental health disorders and improve their quality of life. Our skilled and dedicated team of mental health professionals, recovery workers, and other support workers go out of their way to create an environment that is calm, comfortable, and conducive to healing. 

We rely on a time-proven holistic approach to mental health and recovery, employing an array of evidence-backed and industry-standard psychiatric modalities alongside proven alternative therapies that promote mental health. While CBT forms the backbone of our anxiety and panic disorder treatment, our patients benefit from this varied and individualised approach. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health disorders that affect your quality of life, including anxiety and panic disorders, please reach out to Gladstones Clinic at 0808 258 2350 or through our online portal. Our skilled operators will gladly talk you through any questions you might have about our clinic or treatment programmes.

For more information about Gladstones, our facilities, and treatment programmes, feel free to check out these pages:

Looking for effective treatment for anxiety or panic attacks?

Contact Gladstones Clinic for residential and daycare treatment options and reclaim your life from anxiety, panic, and disorder.

Works Cited

Cackovic, C., et al. “Panic Disorder.StatPearls, 2024. National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430973/. Accessed 3 June 2024.

Chand, S. P., and R. Marwaha. “Anxiety.” StatPearls, 2024. National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470361/. Accessed 3 June 2024.

Curtiss, J. E. “Cognitive-Behavioral Treatments for Anxiety and Stress-Related Disorders.Focus (American Psychiatric Publishing), vol. 19, no. 2, 2021, pp. 184-189. National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8475916/. Accessed 3 June 2024.

Johnson, P. L., et al. “ETIOLOGY, TRIGGERS AND NEUROCHEMICAL CIRCUITS ASSOCIATED WITH UNEXPECTED, EXPECTED, AND LABORATORY-INDUCED PANIC ATTACKS.Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, vol. 46, no. 3, 2014, pp. 429-54. National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4252820/. Accessed 3 June 2024.

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