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Published On: June 25, 2021|Categories: Mental Health|

Panic attacks vs anxiety attacks

Although panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often conflated, they are two distinct conditions with distinct symptoms. In general, panic attacks are abrupt, intense and unexpected, while anxiety attacks are prolonged periods of anxiety. The two experiences share some physical symptoms, including increased heart rate and hyperventilation.

It is important to note the clinical distinctions between the two conditions using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5) as a basis. The DSM-5 is the psychiatric field’s authority on psychiatric diagnosis criteria, treatment recommendations, contemporary terminology and updated scientific findings and research. Panic attacks are defined as a specifier that can be applicable to all disorders in the DSM-5 – meaning they provide context to the disorder being diagnosed and can corroborate the diagnosis of any disorder is defined in the DSM-5, however, anxiety attacks do not appear in the Manual as a symptom, specifier or condition. Further, panic attacks can be a specifier or a symptom of any psychiatric disorder defined in the DSM-5, while anxiety itself is only considered a symptom of anxiety disorders.

What causes panic attacks?

Panic attacks come on suddenly and, often, without warning. The exact cause of a panic attack can depend on a person’s medical history and specific triggers. Risk factors include a history of trauma; an underlying health condition, psychiatric or not and a history of experiencing anxiety.

Occasionally, panic attacks can be “expected” in that they are caused by known stressors like certain environments, reminders of traumatic events, phobias and chronic illness.

What causes anxiety attacks?

Anxiety attacks are thought to be the culmination of extended periods of feeling anxiety, wherein the buildup of the anxiety washes over a person in a way that feels like an attack. Anxiety attacks are often situational, caused by stressful or threatening environments, the anticipation of an upcoming event or a general period of stress caused by life changes – becoming a parent, working long hours and experiencing financial strain.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

  • Feelings of derealization and/or depersonalization
  • Sweating and/or hot flashes
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Tunnel vision, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Feelings of numbness or tingling in your head, arms, legs, fingers and/or feet
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or feelings of choking

What are the symptoms of an anxiety attack?

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Feeling startled easily
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Overstimulation
  • Dizziness
  • Restlessness
  • Rapid breathing

Anxiety attacks can range in severity.

How long do panic attacks last?

On average, panic attacks last between five to ten minutes. They are short, intense bursts of panic and terror accompanied by the feeling of fight-or-flight and physically arresting symptoms.

How long do anxiety attacks last?

Anxiety attacks are typically much more persistent than panic attacks. Because they often manifest during a stressful period in one’s life or in anticipation of a big event, anxiety attack symptoms can potentially last for days or weeks on end. A person with a stressful job, for example, may experience feelings of an anxiety attack during the workday but may find that those symptoms subside once they get home; it is also possible that they experience an undercurrent of an anxiety attack for several weeks during their busy season or over the course of an important project.

How can I treat panic attacks while they are happening?

  • Try to control your breathing to avoid feeling short of breath. Inhale through your nose and from your stomach, and exhale fully from your mouth.
  • Remind yourself that this feeling is temporary and that it is indeed a panic attack and it cannot physically harm you.
  • Engage your senses and practice grounding techniques. Focus on things you can see and feel. If overstimulation is making your panic attack worse, turn off anything playing in the background that is causing extraneous sights and sounds.

How can I treat anxiety attacks while they are happening?

  • Address the stressful situation that is leading to your anxiety attacks, such as by taking time off work, hiring a home helper or avoiding driving on roads or freeways that may trigger you.
  • Practice mindfulness and breathing exercises as part of your regular routine.
  • Eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated.
  • Find an exercise routine that works for you.
  • Get the amount of sleep that is recommended for you.

Are there long-term treatment options for recurring panic attacks or anxiety attacks?

Again, because of their differences, panic attacks and anxiety attacks must be treated differently. Panic attacks are often a symptom of an underlying psychiatric disorder that will need to be treated holistically, either through traditional counseling, medication, recreational therapy or a combination of modalities. Anxiety attacks, which may represent an anxiety disorder or rather maybe the body’s response to stressful situations, can often be treated through lifestyle changes, circumstantial changes or treatment of the anxiety disorder itself.

The Light Program offers residential, outpatient and remote treatment for individuals suffering from panic attacks, anxiety attacks or both. Our practice is dedicated to helping you live your most healthy life while confronting head-on any challenges brought about by anxiety. Reach out today at 610-644-6464 to learn more about treatment options.

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