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Are anxiety and panic attacks the same?

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Sometimes we feel intense fear, discomfort, chest pain; and a bunch of unpleasant feelings and immediately go into overdrive! We start thinking, What is happening to me? I feel out of control and this is so crazy!

Not knowing or being confused about what is going on increases our worry and fear. However being able to correctly name the event can help a lot. We often use the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” interchangeably, knowing the differences between the two can change our approach and the way we handle them.


Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, as well as physical changes like increased blood pressure, palpitations and breathlessness. Anxiety is not the same as fear, but they are often used to portray same experiences.

It is normal to feel nervous before important events happening in our day to day life. For example, jitters before an exam or a first date. People usually worry about crucial things such as health, money or family problems but all of these are temporary fears rooted in what is happening in the now. The symptoms of anxiety can start during any part of life. But symptoms which start during childhood or the teen years can continue into adulthood.

Some Examples of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder (social phobia), specific phobias and separation anxiety disorder. A person can have more than one anxiety disorder, and they can co-exist with other mental health issues.


The term anxiety attack is used to describe intense periods of anxiety. It is an informal phrase and does not have a set definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is the authoritative handbook on mental health illnesses used by professionals worldwide.

It is called an attack because it is usually more overwhelming and intense than just “having“ anxiety. What people mean when they say they are going through anxiety attacks is that their symptoms are more intense than usual or then they have felt previously but are not as severe as a panic attack. It is also important to remember that ometimes Panic attacks are mistaken as anxiety attacks. According to a book, Stop Anxiety from Stopping You, Dr. Helen Odessky notes that the term anxiety attack became more common because people started feeling like anxiety was interrupting their life.

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms, which people may describe as an anxiety attack. These include:

  • Feeling lightheaded and dizzy

  • A churning feeling, or a “knot” in the stomach

  • Restlessness

  • Raster breathing

  • Diarrhea

  • Sweating

  • Hot flushes

  • Nausea

  • Pins and needles

  • Headaches and backaches

  • A fast or irregular heartbeat


There are certain factors that may increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder:

  • Trauma. Children who endured abuse or trauma or witnessed traumatic events are at higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder at some point in life. Adults who experience a traumatic event also can develop anxiety disorders.

  • Stress due to an illness. Having a health condition or serious illness can cause significant worry regarding the treatment and the future.

  • Stress buildup. A big event or a buildup of smaller stressful life situations may trigger excessive anxiety — for example, a death in the family, work stress or ongoing worry about finances.

  • Personality. People with certain personality types are more prone to anxiety disorders than others are.

  • Other mental health disorders. People with other mental health disorders, such as depression, often also have an anxiety disorder.

  • Having blood relatives with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders can run in families.

  • Drugs or alcohol. Drug or alcohol use or misuse or withdrawal can cause or worsen anxiety.


According to the American Psychological Association, Panic Disorder is a serious condition that around one out of every 75 people might experience. It usually appears during the teens or early adulthood, and while the exact causes are unclear, there does seem to be a connection with major life transitions that are potentially stressful: graduating from college, getting married, having a first child, and so on.

Panic Disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms. These episodes occur “out of the blue,” not as a result of a known fear or stressor.


Panic attacks are sudden, intense episodes of fear or anxiety that can last several minutes and can be accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. People with panic disorder often experience a persistent fear of having another panic attack, which can significantly impact their daily activities and quality of life.

Usual Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Difficulty breathing, feeling as though you "can't get enough air"

  • Terror that is almost paralyzing

  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea

  • Trembling, sweating, shaking

  • Choking, chest pains

  • Hot flashes, or sudden chills

  • Tingling in fingers or toes ("pins and needles")

  • Fear that you're going to go crazy or are about to die

All the symptoms are typical of a classic flight or fight response but the attack occurs in seemingly harmless situations — they can even happen while you are asleep. A panic attack is not dangerous, but it can be terrifying, largely because it feels "crazy" and "out of control." Panic disorder is frightening because of the panic attacks associated with it, and also because it often leads to other complications such as phobias, depression, substance abuse, medical complications, even suicide. The effects can range from mild word or social impairment to a total inability to face the outside world.

In fact, the phobias that people with panic disorder develop do not come from fears of actual objects or events, but rather from fear of having another attack. In these cases, people will avoid certain objects or situations because they fear that these things will trigger another attack.

Note: A panic attack and heart attack share certain similarities and may be confused for each other, therefore it is best to consult a medical professional.


A person’s risk of panic disorder is affected by a number of genetic and environmental factors, including:

Genetic: Like many other mental illnesses, panic disorder tends to run in families. Individuals whose parents have anxiety, bipolar disorders, or depression are more at risk for experiencing panic disorder symptoms when compared to individuals who do not have similar backgrounds.

Environmental: In addition to genetics, a person’s environment can also affect his or her chances of developing panic disorder. Examples of such environmental risk factors include instances of sexual or physical abuse during childhood, interpersonal problems, death of a family member, disruptions to one’s physical well-being, drug use, or being diagnosed with a serious illness. Certain health and lifestyle concerns, like smoking, may also increase one’s risk of this disorder.


There are clinical differences between these anxiety and panic disorders that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition) (DSM-5) identifies.

  • APPEARANCE: HOW DOES EACH ONE LOOK? One of the main differences between a panic attack vs. anxiety attack is how they appear. 1) An anxiety attack will start out gradually, building up over time. 2) But a panic attack is usually more spontaneous, sometimes going from 0 to 10 in an instant.

  • ONSET: HOW DO THEY START? The onset of both conditions can be a determining factor on which you might be experiencing. 1) Extreme anxiety attacks are slow to come on, and most people have multiple additional symptoms before any actual attack begins. There is also typically a specific cause or situation that sparks an anxiety attack. 2) Panic attacks will appear more spontaneously and suddenly. There often won’t be a slow build-up that results in the attack. Instead, they seem to come out of nowhere, so it can be difficult to pinpoint a specific cause. We should point out that this is how panic attacks present to most people.

  • SYMPTOMS There are several physical symptoms that are quite similar between the two conditions. But there are also some core differences. 1) For example, levels of intensity can vary and because chronic anxiety attacks usually result after a build-up, there are often more symptoms than a panic attack — which seemingly comes out of nowhere — may show.

  • DURATION Anxiety and panic attacks can have different duration periods. 1) Chronic anxiety attacks tend to last a lot longer, and because of the gradual onset of symptoms, for the person experiencing it, they can feel like they’re going on forever. 2) Panic attacks start and end quickly. Most panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes. Some have been reported to last up to an hour. The number of attacks you have will depend on how severe your condition is. Some people have attacks once or twice a month, while others have them several times a week.

  • TRIGGERS Triggers are yet one more difference between frequent panic attacks and anxiety attacks. 1) Triggers for anxiety attacks are most often situational. For example, if you have a fear of closed spaces, being trapped in a car wash or elevator may bring on an anxiety attack. Ultimately, anxiety attack triggers really just depend on what causes someone’s anxiety. 2) As a general rule, though panic attacks may start in situations of perceived extreme danger, they do not always show the same pattern of reasoning. This makes it difficult to say what might trigger a panic attack. The fact that they start so suddenly makes it difficult to say what causes them.

Still, while the distinction between anxiety vs. panic attacks has become clearer over time, there isn’t yet an official definition for an anxiety attack.

If you feel like you are experiencing either anxiety attacks or panic attacks, it is really important to seek consultation and help from a psychologist. Effective treatment can help one overcome your symptoms, develop an understanding of how you feel the way you do, and support you every step towards recovery.

- Nafisa Karachiwala

Team Cinq in

At CINQ.IN, our team of psychologists and therapists offers a holistic approach to therapy. Whether you're looking for CBT, Exposure Therapy, Mindfulness-based therapy, ACT, or DBT, we can help you find the right treatment option for you.

Our team of experienced psychologists and therapists work together to help individuals with anxiety to overcome their symptoms and improve their quality of life. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, we encourage you to reach out to us at CINQ.IN for support and guidance. We understand that every person is unique and requires a customized approach to treatment. That is why we offer a range of different therapy options, including individual therapy, group therapy, and online therapy, to suit each person's specific needs.

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