“Anxiety attacks” and “panic attacks” are terms often used interchangeably and sometimes even treated interchangeably to feel an absolutely normal amount of anxiety, for example, about an upcoming exam. But although they overlap, they describe different experiences.
Both anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be distressing. But with histories of mental health misdiagnoses numbering in the dozen, awareness of the difference between the seemingly indistinguishable conditions can make it easier for one to advocate for themselves. Especially given how easy it seems to confuse the two — especially to an outside observer — being aware of your own experience can be the key to getting the right kind of help, sooner rather than later.
According to Namita Ruparel, an assistant professor at the Jindal Institute of Behavioral Sciences, a panic attack can occur without warning at the mere prospect of a perceived threat. “Panic attacks are sudden while anxiety attacks are gradually built on thoughts [and] it is generally ingrained [one’s] current circumstances,” he told The Indian Express. “A chain of unpleasant thoughts accompanied by worry, tension, nervousness and intrusive thoughts about the future, and the expectation that something unpleasant might happen is termed anxiety… [It can impact] heart rate, blood pressure, insulin levels, just to name a few.
Regular panic attacks for seemingly no reason have a separate diagnosis – panic disorder. They are typically associated with bereavement, a close relative with the disorder, or neurochemical imbalance, while the exact causes remain unclear. Some people may have panic attacks without a previous history of anxiety or an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
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Unlike anxiety attacks, which are often dubbed “generalized anxiety disorder flare-ups,” panic attacks are clinically recognized by the Diagnostic and statistical manual. The fifth edition of the same – or the DSM-5, as we know it – suggests that encountering more than four of the following symptoms can classify an experience as a panic attack:
- a pounding heart;
- pain, or any other form of discomfort, in the chest;
- shortness of breath;
- a feeling of suffocation;
- nausea, if no other gastric symptoms;
- chills and hot flashes;
- numbness — or, sometimes, tingling sensations — in parts of one’s body;
- a sense of dissociation from one’s immediate environment, reality, or even one’s body;
- a pervading sense of doom; AND
- a fear that quickly sets in of losing control.
The fact that anxiety attacks aren’t recognized by the DSM-5, however, doesn’t make them any less legitimate than a panic attack. According to Healthline, “The lack of diagnostic recognition of anxiety attacks means that the signs and symptoms are open to interpretation … That is, one person may describe having an ‘anxiety attack’ and have symptoms that another person does not has ever experienced despite indicating that they too had an ‘anxiety attack’”.
However, experts believe that, objectively, the immediate symptoms of panic attacks are “more intense.” Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, can feel like a wave of anxiety sweeping over a person. They are also often in response to a perceived threat or fear that builds up over time, unlike panic attacks, which can occur unsolicited and for seemingly no reason.
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There is also a difference in the duration of an anxiety attack and a panic attack. The latter is thought to be shorter, typically lasting only a few minutes, although it may occasionally be longer or shorter. The duration of an anxiety attack, however, can be up to 30 minutes. That said, though, going through both can make the experience feel like it was a lifetime.
Thankfully, there are several ways to treat both, ranging from breathing exercises and grounding techniques that can be used to calm yourself in the moment to long-term recourse in the form of therapy and medication.
But as Dr. Ramnarine Boodoo, a psychiatrist, advises, it’s important to do this Never tell a person in the midst of a panic attack, “Don’t worry.” She says, “They will worry. It’s so intense… You can actually increase the angst of the moment by suggesting they stop doing the very thing they are unable to do at the moment.
As we become more aware of our emotions, using incorrect terminology helps no one, much less ourselves. Not only can it interfere with diagnosis and treatment, but it can also make people prone to the perception that they are simply exaggerating their symptoms. In a world where many Still tend to take mental health lightly, it can be painful to deal with.
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