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Anxiety Attack Vs. Panick Attack

You might hear the words anxiety attack and panic attack used interchangeably as if they mean the same thing. In fact, panic and anxiety have different features, and behavioral health professionals use the terms for specific symptoms and disorders. Panic attacks are often associated with sudden fear and anxiety with high-stress levels or excessive worrying. Some of the symptoms are similar, including rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Each also has other symptoms that are unique.

Everyone can experience panic attacks and anxiety; they are a part of the emotional and protective response hardwired into the human body. It’s when either occurs frequently that there is cause for concern. No matter which you experience, it’s important to understand their definitions, symptoms, and treatments.

Clinical Differences:

Professionals who treat mental health conditions base diagnosis on definitions found in the “Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition,” known as the DSM-5. Though anxiety and panic attacks may feel the same at times, the subtle differences outlined in this handbook help identify each. The DSM-5 uses the term panic attack to describe the hallmark features associated with the condition known as panic disorder.

However, panic attacks may occur in other psychiatric disorders and it is possible to have a panic attack with no disorder. The term “anxiety attack” is not defined in the DSM-5. Rather, “anxiety” is used to describe a core feature of several illnesses identified under the headings of anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and trauma- and stressor-related disorders. Some of the most common disorders under these three headings include:

  • Panic disorder
  • Agoraphobia without history of panic disorder
  • Specific phobia
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

The differences between panic and anxiety are best described in terms of the intensity of the symptoms and length of time the main symptoms occur. The in-depth guide in the DSM-5 guide your health provider to make a diagnosis and classify your condition.

Panic Attacks:

A panic attack is a sudden and intense feeling of fear, terror, nervousness, or apprehension. The symptoms are often so extreme that they cause a severe disruption during your day. Panic attacks usually occur out of the blue without an obvious, immediate trigger. In some cases, they are “expected” because the fear is caused by a known stressor such as a phobia. Panic attack symptoms peak within 10 minutes and then they subside. However, some panic attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and the other begins.

Following an attack, it is not unusual to feel stressed, worried, out-of-sorts, or “keyed up” for the remainder of the day. According to the DSM-5, a panic attack is characterized by four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations, pounding heart, accelerated heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
  • Feelings of unreality; or being detached from oneself
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Chills or hot flashes


In contrast, anxiety generally intensifies over a period of time and is highly correlated with excessive “worry” about some potential danger- whether real or perceived. If the anticipation of something builds up and the high amount of stress reaches a level where it becomes overwhelming, it may feel like an “attack”. The symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Increased startle response
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness


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