You have probably heard the terms panic attack and anxiety attack used interchangeably; however, they are not quite the same. So what is the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack? And what symptoms do different types of anxiety present? Understanding how to distinguish one from the other can help you know the best way to manage an attack when it comes on and potentially prevent or reduce the severity of an attack.
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What Is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is an episode that involves sudden feelings of intense fear without an apparent cause or actual danger to oneself. They often seem to come out of nowhere, and it can be difficult to identify the source of the fear. Thankfully, panic attacks are rare for most people and may only occur during highly stressful periods. However, some people experience panic attacks repeatedly, which is referred to as panic disorder. Whether you have only a few panic attacks in your lifetime or struggle with panic disorder, these attacks can be incredibly frightening and interfere with your quality of life.
A panic attack is defined as an episode of intense fear without apparent danger or cause.
Although there is typically no real danger present when having a panic attack, some underlying risk factors can make you more susceptible to an attack. Some common risk factors for panic attacks are:
- Changes in the brain
- Lower resilience to stress
- Genetic predisposition
- History of abuse during childhood
- Being female
- Having a mental health condition
- Having a substance use disorder
Knowing the causes of panic attacks can help you make some changes in your life to help you avoid them. For example, if your parents, siblings, or other relatives have suffered panic attacks, you can be proactive by learning how to reduce the chances of an attack.
On top of risk factors for panic attacks, there are triggers that can instigate an episode, such as:
- Consuming too much caffeine
- Heavy smoking
- Major life changes like divorce or relocating
- Excessive stress
- Traumatic events such as witnessing a serious accident or assault
If you have one or more risk factors for panic attacks, you should try to minimize triggers whenever possible. Although some of the above are not within your control, you can follow steps for panic attack prevention to reduce the chances of having one.
The symptoms of panic attacks significantly impact your mind and body.
The most common mental symptoms of a panic attack are:
- Severe anxiety
- A sudden sense of fear
- A strong feeling that something bad is going to happen
- Worrying that you are going to lose control
This abrupt feeling of fear and anxiety can take you by surprise since the triggers are not always obvious.
Some common physical symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Chest pain
- Choking sensation
- Difficulty breathing
- Dry mouth
- Heart palpitations
Some people also feel as though they cannot catch their breath. In some cases, people having panic attacks may think they’re having a heart attack or that they’re going to die.
Duration and Occurrence
The average panic attack lasts between five to 30 minutes.
The first time you have a panic attack, you may not realize what is happening. The experience can come on suddenly, convincing you that you’re having a heart attack or dying. To help prevent future attacks, you should reach out to your provider for a proper diagnosis. This is also important to rule out any other health conditions contributing to or mimicking panic attacks.
Your provider will perform an exam and may run tests for health conditions like thyroid disease, respiratory conditions, and heart disease since these conditions can cause similar symptoms to panic attacks. If they don’t uncover a health problem causing your panic attacks, they will consider the possibility of a panic disorder. To diagnose this, they will ask you questions about your attacks, such as:
- How many panic attacks have you had, and how often do you have them?
- What symptoms do you experience when you have panic attacks?
- Do you have a family history of panic attacks?
- Have you undergone any significant stress or life events recently?
- Have you experienced any traumatic events in the past?
This interview will help them better understand your situation so they can determine whether your attacks are related to a temporary situation or a more chronic condition, like panic disorder.
Treatment and Medication
Whether you have occasional panic attacks or are diagnosed with panic disorder, your provider will develop a treatment plan to help you manage them. Treatment for panic attacks may consist of:
There are two types of medication most often prescribed for panic attacks: anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants.
Benzodiazepines like Xanax and Ativan are commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications for panic attacks. These are fast-acting medications that you can use in the event of a panic attack to calm your nervous system quickly.
Antidepressants like Prozac and Paxil are also standard components of a treatment plan for panic attacks. These take a bit longer to work, approximately a few weeks to start feeling the effects.
Although there are several types of therapy that can help you manage panic attacks, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common. This type of therapy addresses how your thoughts impact your behaviors. Your therapist will help identify distorted thought patterns that may contribute to the severity or frequency of panic attacks. They will also work with you to create a plan to prevent panic attacks by exploring triggers and finding ways to eliminate them or respond to them differently.