Unraveling the differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks

When you’re experiencing a racing heartbeat, chest pain and shortness of breath, you may assume you’re having an anxiety attack. Or could it be a panic attack? 


Despite sharing some symptoms, they are each distinct conditions. Panic attack and anxiety attack are often used interchangeably. However, understanding their differences is essential to receive the effective treatment needed. 

Similarities between panic attacks and anxiety attacks

Although “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” are frequently used interchangeably in conversation, they are, in fact, different experiences. They do, however, share certain common symptoms, including:

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Sweating

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain or discomfort

Differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks

Anxiety attacks often are a result of a mental health condition or trauma, while panic attacks can be linked to panic disorders. Panic attacks don’t always have an identifiable trigger, and they affect over 10% of the US population annually. 


Symptoms of a panic attack may include:

  • Intense physical symptoms, resembling a heart attack

  • Rapid onset and peaking quickly (typically lasting 5-10 minutes)

  • Fear of losing control or dying

  • Generally shorter in duration than an anxiety attack

  • Sense of detachment from self or surroundings

  • Numbness or tingling in extremities


On the other hand, anxiety attacks are often symptomatic of anxiety disorders. Symptoms can include:

  • Overwhelming nervousness

  • Heightened irritability

  • Sense of impending danger or doom

  • Longer duration than a panic attack, or for an indefinite length of time

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Disturbed sleep

  • Trembling 

Triggers for panic attacks and anxiety attacks

The cause of what can cause some people to experience panic attacks or anxiety attacks isn’t clear, and experts don’t fully understand them. Your brain does play an important role in the response to fear and anxiety. Certain factors can increase the risk of these attacks, including:

  • Family history —  If you have a family history of anxiety or panic attacks, you have an increased risk of also developing the condition. If a close relative has the same condition, you have an increased risk of up to 40% of also developing the condition. 

  • Mental health conditions — If you have an existing anxiety disorder or depression, you may have an increased risk of experiencing a panic or anxiety attack at some point. 

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences — If you experienced an adverse childhood experience (traumatic event in childhood), you may have an increased risk of suffering from anxiety attacks or panic attacks. 


Panic attacks and anxiety attacks can be caused by other triggers including:

  • Stressful situations like job pressures, divorce, or loss of a loved one

  • Social engagements

  • Phobias

  • Remembering traumatic experiences

  • Chronic conditions

  • Substance withdrawal

  • Caffeine, medication, or supplements

  • Thyroid issues

  • Family conflict

  • Relationship challenges

Treatment options for panic attacks and anxiety attacks

While panic attacks and anxiety attacks are different, they can both respond well to a variety of treatments. You don’t have to continuously have your daily life affected by the attacks. The sooner you can seek help, the sooner you can find much needed relief. 


Beneficial treatments can include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the gold standard of psychological treatment. It can be especially effective in helping to treat panic attacks and anxiety attacks. With the help of your therapist, you can learn to discuss your thoughts and emotions. This can help you to unlearn negative and anxious responses to those thoughts and emotions. Through CBT, your therapist can help you to learn healthier responses to triggers, patterns, and behaviors. 

  • Exposure therapy — Exposure therapy exposes you to your trigger or triggers. With the help of your therapist, you can slowly increase this exposure. It can help you learn how to comfortably and safely respond to your triggers instead of experiencing a panic attack or anxiety attack. 

  • Medication — Your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to help with the physical symptoms experienced during a panic attack or anxiety attack. Medications prescribed to help include antidepressants, anti-anxieties, and beta blockers. It is important to discuss the risks and benefits of any prescribed medications with your healthcare provider and apprise them of any side effects you may experience. 

  • Relaxation techniques — Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques can help you in the midst of an attack or before an attack overwhelms you. These techniques may help you feel more grounded and relaxed. 


Seeking help is a sign of strength. A therapist or medical provider can help you create a plan to have in place when you feel like you are spiraling out of control. While panic attacks and anxiety attacks are two distinct conditions, if they are negatively affecting your quality of life, help is there for you. 

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks don’t have to ruin your life

Life is complicated and messy. When it comes to mental health, we believe there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. At Halcyon Therapy Group, we understand just how important you and your unique situation and perspectives are. That’s why we offer a suite of services tailored specifically to you and your needs. You deserve better, and we are here to help. 

Book your complimentary consultation today and start living the life you always dreamed of.

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