Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are similar because they center on fear and worry. However, there are significant differences between these two types of bodily responses to stress. Even though anxiety and panic attacks can feel overwhelming and disrupt your day in the moment, there are ways to manage them and return to a relaxed state.
Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack
Anxiety attacks are the body’s response to a slow accumulation of worry and stress. Depending on the type and degree of stress, the symptoms of an anxiety attack can vary from person to person. The main symptom is psychological distress, but physical symptoms can include the following:
- Muscle tension
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Increased heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Chills or sweating
- Trouble concentrating
These symptoms are not harmful themselves, but frequent anxiety attacks can be distressing and interfere with your ability to function in your daily tasks and responsibilities. Anxiety attacks aren’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but it’s important to seek professional help if you experience frequent anxiety attacks that are difficult to manage.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Panic attacks differ from anxiety attacks because they occur suddenly and without any signs or warning. A panic attack is a rush of extreme fear, and it can happen as a reaction to something you fear, or it can happen when there is no identified reason to be afraid. Panic attacks can even occur when you’re asleep. They’re considered the body’s false alarm because the attack activates the body’s fight-or-flight response and intensifies it, even when there is no danger.
While anxiety attacks can feel unnerving and uncomfortable, panic attacks are much more intense. Anxiety attacks are difficult to manage, but people can persevere through them. Panic attacks, however, can feel almost impossible to push through. When a person experiences a panic attack, they may feel as if they are having a heart attack, dying or going crazy. Panic attack symptoms include the following:
- Dizziness or feeling light-headed
- A feeling of being disconnected from the real world
- Pounding heart
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- A feeling of choking or tightness in the throat
- A sense of imminent danger or doom
- Abdominal pain
- Sweating or chills
- Shaking or trembling
- Tingling or numbness
For a healthcare professional to diagnose a panic attack, four or more of the symptoms must occur, but a person having a panic attack will probably not experience all of the symptoms listed at the same time. These symptoms are not life-threatening, but the intense fear during a panic attack can worsen symptoms. People will usually experience symptoms at their worst a few minutes after a panic attack begins, but panic attacks will usually only last about 20 minutes or an hour at the most.
If you experience a panic attack with symptoms that last longer than an hour, it’s important to seek emergency care. Most people will only experience one or two panic attacks in their lifetime and can manage them on their own, but if you are experiencing recurrent panic attacks, it may be helpful to seek professional care.
What Causes a Panic Attack or Anxiety Attack?
Recurrent panic and anxiety attacks can indicate an anxiety or panic disorder in some people, but others who have a panic attack will only experience it once or twice in their lifetime. Medical conditions such as heart disease or hyperthyroidism can cause anxiety and panic attacks, and certain medications such as steroids and asthma medications can contribute to them as well.
Trauma is another common cause of panic attacks. This can include childhood trauma such as physical, psychological or sexual abuse. It can also include traumatic events such as sexual assault or serious accidents. Other stressful events, even happy ones, such as career changes, divorce, a serious illness or a new baby can cause anxiety and panic attacks in some people.
Some people are more prone to panic attacks than others. Genes can play a role in mental health, so if a family member struggles with anxiety or panic attacks, it can have an effect on your likelihood of experiencing one. Certain health habits such as alcohol use, caffeine intake, smoking and drug use can also make a person more likely to experience anxiety or panic attacks.
Certain fears can also cause anxiety and panic attacks. Fears like agoraphobia, the fear of open or crowded spaces, and acrophobia, the fear of heights, can cause people to experience panic attacks in certain situations that trigger their specific fear. Social anxiety can cause panic attacks to occur when fears arise in anticipation or during social situations. There are many different fears that can cause an anxiety or panic attack to occur.
What to Do During a Panic or Anxiety Attack
Anxiety and panic attacks can feel overwhelming. Professional services such as individual counseling can help when anxiety regularly disrupts your daily life, but there are also things you can do to relieve your symptoms in the moment of an attack. The goal is to calm the body’s fight or flight reaction, and you can do this by practicing the following techniques:
Deep breathing can slow your heart rate, which helps to take your body out of the fight or flight response. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, you should take slow, deep breaths that fill your lungs with air and cause your chest and lower abdomen to rise. One way to do this is to inhale for a count of four seconds, hold for another count of four seconds ad exhale for a count of eight seconds. Repeat this pattern until you feel calm again.
Making conscious efforts to reduce muscle tension can help to relieve anxiety and the body’s fight or flight response. Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that relieves tension in the body. To practice this technique, tense a group of muscles in the body, such as your arms or leg muscles, and then release them. Take notice of the way your muscles feel relaxed as you do so. Repeat this process for other muscle groups until your body feels less tense and more relaxed.
Mindfulness is the act of observing thoughts and feelings in the present moment without labeling them as bad or good. It involves awareness of thoughts and emotions as well as acceptance of these thoughts and emotions. You can practice mindfulness by meditating on your thoughts while focusing on deep breathing.
Seek Treatment for Anxiety
Anxiety and panic attacks can occur for many reasons. Sometimes, recurring attacks can indicate the presence of an anxiety or panic disorder. If anxiety or panic attacks are overwhelming you and disrupting your daily life, anxiety treatment services can help.
Taylor Counseling Group provides affordable anxiety counseling. Our therapists will work with you to create a custom treatment plan that’s right for you. Schedule an appointment online to start your journey toward healing.