While you might think panic and anxiety are the same thing because they’re usually used interchangeably, they are different in some important ways. So how do you know when you’re having a panic attack vs an anxiety attack? Read on to find out more about them so that you can better identify the one you’re experiencing as well as some ways to cope.
What’s a panic attack? A panic attack, if you’ve ever experienced one, is a terrifying experience (trust me, I’ve had many in my life to date). It contains a variety of physical symptoms that tend to come on suddenly. These include a racing heartbeat, nausea, and shortness of breath. Since a panic attack can totally take you by surprise, it makes the symptoms feel even more alarming. It’s not unusual to experience those symptoms and assume you’re having some other health problem, like a heart attack.
Panic attacks can be expected or unexpected. You can get a panic attack that’s known as an expected panic attack. This is panic that’s triggered by an external stressor, such as a phobia. By comparison, an unexpected panic attack is when the attack strikes out of the blue and you don’t really have a cause for it (which can, naturally, make it feel even more terrifying).
Panic attacks also include mental symptoms. These can include a fear of dying or something bad happening to you, feelings of unreality, feelings of being detached from yourself, fear of losing control, or a fear of going crazy.
Panic attacks can be part of a panic disorder. A panic disorder is when you experience panic attacks frequently. That said, you might experience a panic attack once in a while, or have just one big event in your life. It really can vary. Usually, a panic attack lasts for about 10 minutes, although it can last longer. After a panic attack, you can experience feeling on edge, worried, stressed, or just flat-out exhausted.
What is an anxiety attack? An anxiety attack doesn’t come on out of the blue. It tends to occur after anxiety, worry, and stress have been growing and becoming overwhelming for you. So, if you’re regularly worrying about something, you might experience an anxiety attack because these worries have reached a peak.
More similarities and differences
What does an anxiety attack feel like? An anxiety attack will be filled with lots of fear, worry, and even dread. These can trigger physical symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness, or heart palpitations. Since these symptoms are similar to what you experience with a panic attack, this can make it difficult for you to differentiate between a panic attack and an anxiety attack. Just remember that anxiety attacks are the result of you being worried about something specific.
Anxiety attacks also have mental symptoms. Just like a panic attack, an anxiety attack can contain mental symptoms such as restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
How long does an anxiety attack last? Anxiety attacks can last for days, weeks, or even several months. When an attack begins, it gradually builds up but its symptoms – although alarming – tend to be less severe than what you’ll experience when you have a panic attack.
Other important differences about their causes. Panic attacks can sometimes occur because your body senses danger – even if there’s no apparent danger in your surroundings. This makes you enter fight-or-flight mode. By comparison, an anxiety attack will be caused by a specific worry. That said, it can make you battle to experience rational thoughts as you let your worries get the better of you. Note that you can also have anxiety attacks as part of an anxiety disorder.
Both attacks can be treated in the same way. There are lots of different types of treatments you can try that will help you if you’re suffering from panic or anxiety attacks. These include cognitive-behavioral therapy.
There are ways to prevent both types of attacks. By better managing your stress, getting enough sleep every night, regularly exercising, finding time to relax, and reducing stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine in your diet, you can help to better deal with – and possibly prevent – these attacks.
What To Do During A Panic or Anxiety Attack
Whether you’re dealing with an anxiety or panic attack, there are things you can do when you feel the symptoms come on.
Name it. For starters, it’s always good to acknowledge what’s happening and how you’re feeling. You could also rate what the panic/anxiety is out of 10 so that you feel a bit more in control of it.
Breathe. It can help to breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose. Then, breathe out slowly through your mouth. Do this a few times. If you need help, there are plenty of guided meditations on YouTube and even on dedicated apps such as Calm.
Use a mantra. Repeating mantras to yourself can help you remain centered. This gives you something to which you can direct your thoughts so you focus on them instead of the anxiety. Examples of powerful mantras include, “Everything is okay,” “This will pass,” or “I feel safe.” There are also some great anxiety poems that can help you talk yourself down during anxious moments.
Ground yourself. If breathing doesn’t help you to calm down or you find it difficult because paying more attention to your breathing makes your anxiety increase, try to ground yourself. Pay attention to your surroundings by doing this exercise: find five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This helps to distract you from what’s happening in your body and mind, while also helping you to calm down.
Close your eyes. It can be helpful to close your eyes as you try to relax during an attack. This is because sometimes having too much stimulation can make you feel less calm. It also helps you to concentrate on your breathing. If you’re out in public, retreat to somewhere quiet and calm where you can close your eyes and take a moment to yourself.
Remember that it can’t kill you! It’s easy to get wrapped up in your panic or anxiety and think that something bad will happen to you. Remind yourself that the symptoms you’re having are not anything serious and can’t kill you. They will pass. Sometimes just telling yourself this is enough to diffuse the symptoms and make you feel better.
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