Panic attack and anxiety attack: causes, symptoms, and treatments

You were having a nice time some minutes ago, but you suddenly don’t feel fine anymore. Your head is throbbing, your heart is racing, and it feels like the air around you is insufficient. Your chest hurts. You feel dizzy. What is happening? Are you having a panic attack? Is it an anxiety attack? What is even the difference? Are you going crazy?


A lot of people assume panic attacks and anxiety attacks to be the same thing. However, these conditions are different, even though they share quite a lot of similar symptoms.

While anxiety attacks come with a trigger, panic attacks are sudden and are generally more intense than anxiety attacks. They are characterized by scary physical symptoms such as a pounding heartbeat, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Also, anxiety attacks are not necessarily signs of an anxiety disorder, whereas people who experience panic attacks usually have panic disorders. Anxiety is a natural way your body responds to certain situations while anxiety attacks are more intense forms of the response. 

Now, let’s find out more differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks.

Signs and symptoms

How do you recognize a panic attack? How is it different from an anxiety attack? Let’s compare the symptoms of both conditions.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Panic attacks are abrupt and unusual. They usually occur without any specific trigger. The symptoms include:

  • A sudden increase in heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea 
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Chills
  • Stomach pain
  • A feeling of being choked
  • A feeling of detachment
  • Fear of loss of control

Panic attacks are frightening but are not dangerous and usually last only for about 10 to 15 minutes before subsiding. However, several attacks may occur in succession, making it seem like an attack is taking a long time.

After a panic attack, it is common to feel stressed, worried, or odd for the rest of the day.

Symptoms of an anxiety attack

Anxiety attacks build gradually and are less intense. They occur after a period of extreme worry. Symptoms include:

  • Fear
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Increase in heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Restlessness
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea 
  • Stomach pain
  • Headache 
  • Dry mouth
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • A feeling of being choked
  • Apprehension and worry

The symptoms of an anxiety attack usually last longer than panic attacks. 

Difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack

It may be difficult to tell the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack because of similar symptoms.

You should take note of the following:

  1. Panic attacks are sudden while anxiety attacks build gradually. 
  2. Panic attacks mostly involve disruptive and intense symptoms. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, can be mild, moderate, or severe. 
  3. Unlike anxiety attacks, panic attacks usually occur with triggers. 
  4. Panic attacks only last for a short time. Anxiety attacks may linger for a long time. 


What causes a panic attack? What factors lead to having an anxiety attack? 

Panic attacks may be expected or unexpected. Unexpected panic attacks have no conspicuous triggers. 

Expected panic attacks and anxiety attacks may be caused by any of the following:

  • Stress 
  • Phobias 
  • Chronic pain
  • Caffeine 
  • Driving 
  • Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol
  • Medication or supplements
  • Chronic illnesses
  • Social situations
  • Memories from past traumatic experiences

Risk factors

Panic and anxiety attacks share identical risk factors. You are likely to get one of them if you have:

  • Had a traumatic experience in the past
  • Witnessed a traumatic event
  • A chronic condition or life-threatening illness
  • An anxious personality
  • Issues with drugs or alcohol
  • Continuing stress and worries
  • A different mental disorder, such as depression, or an anxiety disorder
  • Close family members who have panic or anxiety disorders

There is a higher chance of females experiencing panic and anxiety attacks than males. Also, you are more likely to experience panic attacks if you have been down with anxiety.


Doctors employ the definitions contained in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) for their diagnoses. They can diagnose anxiety symptoms, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and panic disorders. 

However, they cannot diagnose anxiety attacks because it is not a defined condition in the DSM.

To run a diagnosis, your doctor will enquire about your symptoms and other life experiences. They may conduct a psychological evaluation and run tests to make sure it isn’t any of the other conditions that share the same symptoms.

To do this, your doctor may conduct:

  • A physical examination 
  • A blood test
  • A heart test, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG) 
  • A psychological evaluation 


What should you do when you experience a panic or anxiety attack? 

If you find yourself down with an attack, you can try the following:

1. Recognize and acknowledge what is happening

The symptoms associated with panic and anxiety attacks are quite scary. Reminding yourself that it is only for a short while will help in reducing fear and keeping you calm.

2. Take slow, deep breaths

When it looks like the air around you is insufficient, try to focus on each breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly. This technique will help keep you calm until the symptoms subside.

Count down from four as you inhale and exhale and repeat the process until your breathing slows.

3. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a great way to stop panic and anxiety attacks. It helps to keep you in the present moment. 

Actively focus on your thoughts, emotions, and sensations without reacting to them. 

4. Apply relaxation techniques

If you experience a panic or anxiety attack, try to do the things that you find relaxing. 

Methods of relaxation, such as muscle relaxation can help lessen the feelings of fear and panic. These techniques can be learnt online or from a qualified health professional.

5. Lifestyle changes

The following changes may help prevent panic and anxiety attacks as well as make it less frightening if it occurs:

  • Try to limit stress as much as you can. 
  • Eat balanced meals. 
  • Stop negative thoughts. 
  • Exercise regularly. 
  • Practice stress-relieving exercises, such as meditation and yoga. 
  • Reduce your alcohol, drug, and caffeine intake. 

Final words

Panic and anxiety attacks may be frightening, but they are not necessarily dangerous. If you are experiencing an attack, it is best to stay as calm as possible as you’ll get better after some time. 

Also, you should report to a medical professional after any attack. It always gets better with treatment.

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Jude Uchella is a research writer and a strong advocate for health and fitness. He takes pleasure in helping people live their best life. When he's not writing, he's probably researching the next topic to write about. :)