Anxiety Attack Vs Panic Attack: Know The Difference?

I was doing my usual weekly research and I was covering the general topic of anxiety. As I was reading, I wondered what is the difference between an anxiety attack vs panic attack.

Initially, I thought that they were the same thing and that perhaps people merely confused the two terms. It turns out however that they are significantly different conditions. I will add however that the two terms are often used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be.

I discovered so much interesting information that I thought it would be of value to dedicate an entire post to the: ‘anxiety attack vs panic attack’ topic.

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

Let’s first look at the symptoms associated with an anxiety attack.

If a person is having an anxiety attack then they will typically experience a raised heart rate, a feeling of being nervous, a change in their breathing pattern and for some people, a slight feeling of nausea. In addition to the symptoms aforementioned, there can be sub-symptoms such as blushing, raised body temperature and perspiring.

The severity of the symptoms will clearly vary from person to person. At the more extreme level, some people may show symptoms very similar to a panic attack which is possibly why the two terms often become confused.

Another factor relating to this particular set of symptoms is that a person who experiences the same situation in the future will have a much-reduced level of anxiety next time. Equally, the more times that the person continues to experience the same situation; the less anxious they become.

Panic Attack Symptoms

The symptoms of panic attacks may at first seem identical to those experienced by someone suffering an anxiety attack. But this is where the anxiety attack vs panic attack question begins to separate.

The list of possible symptoms of a panic attack sufferer can be very long, but I will attempt to provide as many as I can recall:

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Intense nervousness.
  • Breathing patterns change.
  • A feeling of the throat closing like a choking feeling.
  • Feeling faint or lightheaded.
  • Vision can become blurred or may experience tunnel vision.
  • Raised body temperature.
  • Feeling nauseous.
  • A real and genuine feeling that coping with the situation is impossible.
  • Feeling the desperate need to escape the situation causing the panic attack.
  • Avoiding situations where a panic attack has been experienced in the past.
  • Avoiding situations that are similar in some way to where a panic attack has been experienced in the past.

As with all lists, the list above is not exhaustive. But features to note in relation to an anxiety attack vs panic attack are the large number and variety of symptoms.

Not only is the list above quite long, but it also has some unique features when compared to an anxiety attack sufferer.

The main differences to note are the last two in the list, and possibly even the last four. I will be covering these differences in the next section of this post.

Anxiety Attack Vs Panic Attack

anxiety attack vs panic attack

In the first part of this post, we looked at the symptoms of anxiety attacks and panic attacks. One thing that I’d like to make very clear is that while the list of symptoms for an anxiety attack is quite short, the feelings experienced by the sufferer can be very severe. I don’t wish to give the impression that having an anxiety attack is a trivial matter because it is not.

In the last section, I included a list of panic attack symptoms and I drew your attention to the last four items on that list. I also especially noted the last two items on that list. Here I will expand on why these last few symptoms are crucial to understanding the ‘anxiety attack vs panic attack’ question.

To save you scrolling back up the page, here are the last four symptoms of panic attacks once again:

  • A real and genuine feeling that coping with the situation is impossible.
  • Feeling the desperate need to escape the situation causing the panic attack.
  • Avoiding situations where a panic attack has been experienced in the past.
  • Avoiding situations that are similar in some way to where a panic attack has been experienced in the past.

The four items shown above are very revealing in the ‘anxiety attack vs panic attack’ question. The first two could possibly apply to both anxiety attack sufferers and panic attack sufferers. The last two items on the list would only apply to a panic attack sufferer.

The best way that I can help to show you why these last four list items are crucial to this post topic, is by giving you two real-life examples. These two examples are from my own life experiences as I have been an anxiety sufferer and a panic attack sufferer.

My Own Personal, Real-Life, Anxiety Attack Example

anxiety attack vs panic attack

When I left school my first job was as a photographer for a large company. The work was very varied and included photography projects such as photographing their numerous offices to photographing people, meetings, and conferences.

During my first week in my photography job I was handed a camera and instructed to enter a room and photograph members of a conference. As I stood outside the door I had no idea where the doorway would take me.

I opened the door and stepped into the room.

I found myself standing in the center of a large stage with around 300 people in the audience staring at me. On the stage were three empty chairs and me. Nothing else.

It was apparent that the conference speakers had not yet arrived; hence the three empty chairs.

I stood there and I simply froze!

I was 17 years old and this experience was just something out of a nightmare as far as I was concerned.

At this very moment, I was suffering from an anxiety attack and not a panic attack! And interestingly enough, and despite feeling extremely nervous and nauseous, I lasted on that stage for around an hour and also survived the full conference. I simply used my camera as though it were a shield and hid behind it pretty much to get on with my job.

As a side note to the above personal story, I stayed in that employment for ten years and loved every moment of it (despite some more very stressful situations). I also learned a major lesson in that job, and that is: the people that you are photographing are far more nervous than the photographer!

The Lesson To Take Away From My Personal Anxiety Attack Story Above

Although I suffered an anxiety attack on that stage, and I suffered many more in that job, I never once had the thought of leaving my job or trying to avoid those anxious situations.

My Own Personal, Real-Life, Panic Attack Example

anxiety attack vs panic attack

Many years after my photography job, I did start to experience genuine panic attacks. These attacks were very different to the anxiety attacks that I had experienced in my earlier years.

While I have had many panic attacks, there is one that is easy to describe, so I’ll provide this one as my example.

For years I had shopped in large supermarkets like we all do. It’s nothing unusual.

One such shopping trip did stand out as being unusual though because it was my first panic attack in a large store. I had filled my cart and was in the queue to pay and it hit me completely out of the blue!

My breathing started to struggle, my throat felt like two hands were gripping it closed and I felt like I was burning up. I looked around me anxiously and became extremely impatient with how long the shoppers in front of me were taking to pay and get out of the queue.

I lasted long enough to pay and I headed home. The journey home was just a confusion however as I was frightened and confused with what had just happened. I also feared that my next visit to the same store would end the same way!

Guess what. My next visit to that store did end the same way. And the next visit after that.

Although I didn’t stop shopping at the store, my fears expanded into other areas of the shop. It was no longer just the queue to pay that brought on my panic attacks, it was everywhere.

One day as I sat at home fearing to go shopping (it had reached that stage,) I had a thought. That one simple thought stopped my panic attacks in that store immediately! I never had a panic attack in that supermarket ever again.

My thought was this…

If I feel like I am having a panic attack, leave my shopping cart wherever it happens to be, and leave the store without buying anything.

As crazy-simple as that sounds; it worked!

It also highlighted to me that a panic attack sufferers’ greatest fear is not being able to escape the situation that they fear. I had just created my: Get Out of Jail Free, card to panic attacks!

Returning To The Anxiety Attack Vs Panic Attack Question

Looking at the evidence presented, I think that it is very clear that anxiety attacks and panic attack are two different things.

They both have unpleasant symptoms and those symptoms can be very similar.

But here are the major differences:

A panic attack sufferer can suffer panic attacks without any warning and in situations and places that present no obvious threat. Then, once a panic attack has occurred in any given place or situation, that event becomes a future threat to experiencing more panic attacks in that same place.

A panic attack sufferer often begins to associate places with other similar places, and their panic attacks become active in these other similar locations. An example might be that a persons’ first panic attack occurred on a bus, but in the future that extends to trains also.

Panic attack sufferers often become so afraid of their panic attacks that they start to avoid doing certain things in their lives. This type of anxiety is called anticipatory anxiety. In simple terms, the person just needs to think about a future event and that is enough to trigger a highly anxious state, and the total avoidance of that situation follows.

Let’s compare the above to anxiety attacks:

Anxiety attacks occur for real, definite reasons. Perhaps a person needs to give a speech at work and they become highly anxious for this reason. The fear associated with anxiety attacks typically builds up over some time, whereas a panic attack hits like a bolt of lightning and often for no obvious reason.

If you are standing at the foot of a mountain and it’s the first climb of your life, then you may experience an anxiety attack. But if you are sitting having your hair cut and you are suddenly hit with very high anxiety for no reason, then you are having a panic attack.

Do You Suffer From Anxiety Attacks Or Panic Attacks? Comment Below