Many people are not clear on what is the difference between Anxiety and Panic Attacks. Is there a difference or are they similar?
Let’s answer that question for everyone here and now, and help you to understand this long standing confusion.
The terms anxiety attacks, and panic attacks are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. The difference is purely a matter of semantics. But from a clinical perspective, panic and anxiety are defined by different features.
The DSM-IV-TR uses the term panic attack to describe the hallmark features associated with panic disorder. The term “anxiety attack” is not defined in the DSM-IV-TR. Rather, anxiety is used to describe a core feature of several illnesses identified under the headline, “Anxiety Disorders.” Disorders under this heading include:
- Panic Disorder
- Agoraphobia without History of Panic Disorder
- Social Phobia
- Specific Phobia
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
The differences between panic and anxiety are best described in terms of the intensity of the symptoms and length of time the predominant symptoms occur.
During a panic attack, the symptoms are sudden and extremely intense. These symptoms usually occur “out of the blue,” peak within 10 minutes and then subside. However, some attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins.
According to the DSM-IV-TR, a panic attack is characterized by four or more of the following:
- palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- trembling or shaking
- sensations of shortness of breathe or smothering
- feeling of choking
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal distress
- feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
- fear of losing control or going crazy
- fear of dying
- numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
- chills or hot flushes
Anxiety, on the other hand, generally intensifies over a period of time and is highly correlated to excessive worry. The symptoms of anxiety are very similar to the symptoms of panic attacks and may include:
- Muscle tension
- Disturbed sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased startle response
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
While some of these symptoms are similar to many of the symptoms associated with panic attacks, they are generally less intense. Another important distinction is that, unlike a panic attack, the symptoms of anxiety may be persistent and very long lasting — days, weeks or even months.
Whether you’re dealing with panic, persistent anxiety or both, effective treatment is available and should be sought.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision” 2000 Washington, DC: Author.