Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: The Physiology of Panic Disorder

panic attack

Many people use the terms “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous. While they share some common symptoms, they also have different intensities and durations. Understanding the difference can help you determine whether you have anxiety or a panic disorder.

What Is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks tend to be more intense than anxiety attacks. They also come on without warning, while anxiety attacks typically have a related trigger or threat. Panic attacks are also shorter in duration than anxiety attacks, which can gradually intensify over hours or days.

Shared symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks include:

  • A racing heart
  • Chest or stomach pains
  • Shaking
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • A sense of detachment from reality
  • Intense fear, despite no threats being present

People experiencing a panic attack might wonder if they are dying or having a severe health crisis such as a stroke or heart attack. The loss of control, combined with the sudden onset of terror, can make you question your sanity.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

Many people have a couple of panic attacks in their lifetime, and the problem goes away when the stressful situation ends. However, if you have frequent, unexpected panic attacks and live in fear of experiencing another one, you may have panic disorder. In some cases, panic disorder is so disruptive that sufferers develop agoraphobia, or an irrational fear of leaving home.

Experts have yet to determine a definitive cause for panic disorder, but your environment, personality, unique genetic background and the presence of specific stressors may play a role.

While frequent panic attacks are not life-threatening, they can significantly detract from your overall quality of life. If you suspect you have panic disorder, the first thing to do is to see a health professional who can help you arrive at an accurate diagnosis. Panic attack symptoms can also resemble warning signs of other severe health problems, such as heart or thyroid issues, so it’s essential to get a checkup from your primary care provider if you aren’t sure what’s causing your symptoms.

What to Do During a Panic Attack

If you are having a panic attack, the first thing you can do is realize what’s happening to you and take steps to get it under control. Deep, controlled breathing can help prevent the hyperventilation that often results from panicking. Concentrate on taking deep breaths in and out through your mouth, feeling the air gradually fill your chest and belly and slowly leave them again. Inhale for a count of four, hold for a second, then exhale for a count of four.

Some people also feel it helps to focus all their attention on one nearby object, noting all its specific details. It can be grounding to pick something and consciously identify everything you can about it.

Treating a Panic Disorder

If your doctor diagnoses you with panic disorder, a combination of therapy and medication can help you learn to manage your symptoms and decrease the frequency of your panic attacks. You can also try bringing more mindfulness into your daily life by practicing meditation and trying to be more present in the moment.

Some people with panic disorder and other mental health challenges turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate, which can make their problems worse. If you are struggling with a dual diagnosis, New Found Life is here to help with our holistic approach to recovery. When you’re ready to learn more, please reach out to us.