The Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks and How to Recognize Both


When it happens again, you are perfectly well and going about your daily activities as normal. You are struck with a profound sense of dread all of a sudden. Your palms start to sweat, your heart starts beating rapidly, and you have the sensation that you are suffocating. You are experiencing a panic attack, and you are not the only one in this situation.

Six million adult people in the United States suffer with panic disorder, which is defined by frequent experiences of panic. The likelihood of having the illness is two times higher for women than it is for males, and even though it often begins in the early years of adulthood, it can continue to wax and wane for the rest of a person’s life.

According to Grady Carter III, MD, a psychiatrist with Coliseum Medical Centers in Macon, Georgia, “an attack of panic is a sudden episode of fear and anxiety with physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nausea.” “There is typically not an event that can serve as a trigger for recurrent panic episodes.”

It’s common to refer to panic attacks as “anxiety attacks,” but this is actually a misnomer. Although anxiety might be a contributing factor in panic attacks, there is no such thing as an anxiety attack by itself. Instead, anxiety and panic disorder are two distinct conditions, despite the fact that they frequently coexist.

Acquiring Knowledge on Panic Attacks and the Panic Disorder

The root cause of panic attacks is that a person’s body misinterprets an imagined threat as a real one and reacts to it in the same manner as it would to an actual threat. The fight-or-flight response of your body kicks in, which causes an increase in the production of stress hormones, which in turn causes symptoms. The average duration of an episode is less than ten minutes; but, when you are in the midst of one, it might feel like it has lasted for an eternity. Some people are prone to having consecutive panic episodes, often known as rolling panic attacks.

Your first panic attack may come on suddenly and unexpectedly, but subsequent attacks typically have clear causes, such as concerns about one’s finances or difficulties in interpersonal relationships. The simple act of worrying about the likelihood of an attack can bring about the attack itself at times.

Dr. Carter adds that the majority of people will have one panic attack and then brush it off as nothing to worry about. “But what we mean when we talk about panic disorder is a persistent fear of having a panic attack and altering your behaviour in order to keep from having one,”

Where does anxiousness come into play?

Anxiety is something that affects everyone occasionally. This distress may, at times, feel overwhelming, and some people may even refer to these occasions as “anxiety attacks.” On the other hand, feeling worried every now and then for a short period of time is rather typical and normal. This is in contrast to having a panic disorder or another anxiety-related ailment such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

The generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is defined by chronic and excessive concern about everything, and sometimes everything, ranging from your health to your future plans. Your anxieties are present on the majority of days for at least six months, and they disrupt both the day-to-day activities you enjoy as well as the quality of your life.

“Everyone has anxiety, but the characteristic of generalised anxiety disorder is excessive worry,” explains Carter. “Everyone has anxiety.” “People who suffer from GAD don’t just fret about a major event that’s coming up in the near future; instead, they go two steps farther and worry about what will happen after that.”

Additionally, a diagnosis of GAD requires the presence of at least three of the following symptoms:

  • a state of agitation or nervousness
  • Tense muscles
  • Having trouble concentrating on things
  • Irritability
  • Having a difficult time avoiding fatigue
  • Issues with getting a good night’s rest

Stress and heredity are both thought to play a role, but it is not entirely clear what causes generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

According to Carter, it is possible to have both panic disorder and GAD at the same time. In addition, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder are both risk factors for depression.

Obtaining the appropriate form of treatment

Both panic disorder and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) frequently react favourably to the same sorts of treatment, specifically medication and talk therapy. Drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are effective because they boost levels of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. “People commonly think of them as antidepressants, but they are just as good at treating anxiety,” adds Carter, who works in the field of behavioural medicine. It may take some time for these treatments to start functioning, and they may also have some unwanted side effects, such as headaches, nausea, and trouble sleeping.

Even while talk therapy is frequently used in conjunction with medication, it can be effective when utilised on its own. The goal of one form of therapy, known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), is to modify people’s behaviours by altering the ways in which they think about and react to their anxiety.

According to Carter, if you have the appropriate coping mechanisms, you may be able to prevent a panic attack before it even begins. “Patients who have panic disorder have typically visited the emergency room at least once,” he notes, “in order to be reassured that the symptoms are associated with a panic attack, and not another medical issue.” “Tell yourself, ‘This is just a panic attack, I’m not going to die,’ and try to distract yourself and focus on things that are going on around you,” the article suggests. “This is just a panic attack.” According to him, faster-acting anti-anxiety drugs like alprazolam (Xanax) can also be helpful, despite the fact that their use is normally limited to a brief period of time.

It is possible to go for extended stretches of time without experiencing a panic attack; but, if you stop using SSRIs or any other medicine to treat your condition, you may experience a return of your panic episodes. According to Carter’s explanation, “The aim is that when you are on medicine and in therapy, you will overcome some of the issues that have left you more sensitive to panic disorder.”

In the meantime, he says, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one of the best ways to keep symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder and panic attacks at bay. This involves engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy diet, getting a enough amount of sleep, and reducing the amount of alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine consumed. There is some evidence that yoga, meditation, and other forms of relaxation can be helpful in the treatment of stress.

Talk to your primary care provider about medication and getting a referral to a counsellor or therapist if anxiety or panic attacks are negatively impacting your life. An experienced physician will know what questions to ask to determine whether the patient is suffering from anxiety, panic disorder, or both.


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