What is the Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack?

The terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” are often used interchangeably in today’s society, as if they have the same meaning. With the recent surge in mental health education and openness, it is a wonder how these terms can still be misunderstood as one another. These two conditions are distinct and have significant differences. Understanding these differences can help point you in the right direction concerning support, healing, and recovery. Here are the differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack.

What is an Anxiety Attack?

There is no right, generally accepted definition of an anxiety attack because many of the symptoms are open to interpretation. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not recognize anxiety attacks as a condition. However, the DSM-5 does recognize anxiety as a symptom or feature of various common psychiatric disorders. 

Anxiety attacks are less severe than panic attacks and can be caused by the anticipation of stress in different situations, events, or experiences. Several different symptoms can point to an anxiety attack, but these can vary from person to person, making it difficult to diagnose one accurately. 

What is a Panic Attack?

On the other hand, panic attacks are recognized by the DSM-5 and can come on expectedly or unexpectedly. They can occur without an apparent cause, while sometimes they can be brought on by known external stressors such as phobias. These attacks are quite intense and can cause an overwhelming sensation of fear.

Panic attacks are more intense than anxiety attacks. They can be signs of an underlying panic disorder in many individuals, but they can happen to anyone even if they don’t have a panic disorder. 


The DSM-5 classifies panic attacks as including four or more of the following symptoms. It is essential to remember that symptoms can vary, and some individuals may experience symptoms that others don’t. 

  • Chest pain
  • Feelings of losing control
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Chills
  • Detachment from reality
  • Shortness of breath
  • Numbness
  • Hot flashes

Causes of Both

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks can have common causes because they are similar. Often, external triggers are the culprits that trigger these attacks. It is important to note that the reaction is often what classifies the attack as relating to anxiety or a panic attack. The causes do not differentiate the two. Common causes of anxiety and panic attacks include:

  • Stress
  • Phobias
  • Driving
  • Social situations
  • Chronic pain or illnesses
  • Trauma triggers
  • Caffeine
  • Side effects of certain medications
  • Caffeine
  • Withdrawal symptoms from drugs or alcohol
  • Thyroid problems

How Are They Diagnosed?

Anxiety is quite common in the United States, especially in the last year due to the rise of COVID-19. However, even with this increase in anxiety, most individuals do not seek treatment. If you are experiencing anxiety or panic attack symptoms, it is essential to see your doctor and discuss what you have been going through. Your doctor will take a look at your medical history, do a physical exam, and perform various tests to ensure the anxiety you feel is not caused by another underlying illness or disorder. Based on the results of your exams, the doctor will make a diagnosis based on the DSM-5 and your symptoms. 

Treating Panic and Anxiety Disorders

Seeking professional help for panic and anxiety disorders is the best way to ensure you recover. Today, facilities offer a variety of treatments for these conditions and any co-occurring disorders such as addiction. Treating panic and anxiety disorders often involves psychotherapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. It is through these methods that you will have the best results.


A variety of psychotherapies can be used to help patients understand the root causes of their anxiety and overcome them. Types of psychotherapy include behavior therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), humanistic therapy, and holistic therapy. These help individuals learn more about why they have anxious reactions to specific triggers and overcome their fears.


Medications have been found to be highly effective in patients being treated for anxiety or panic disorders when used alongside therapy or counseling. Medications help to reduce symptoms throughout the recovery process. Commonly used medications include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and benzodiazepines.

Lifestyle Changes

It is essential to understand that certain lifestyles can lead to an increase in anxiety. Therefore, learning stress reduction techniques, self-care methods, and grounding exercises can help you reduce your anxiety. These lifestyle changes will help you overcome symptoms on your own when you are not in therapy.

While the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” are often used interchangeably, the two differ from each other with different severities and treatments. Understanding the differences can help individuals know what they are experiencing and what direction they should take for treatment. Finding the right facility for treatment is essential, especially if you have other concerns such as addiction. Luckily, NorthStar Transitions has significant experience in treating co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and panic disorders alongside addiction. Our facility offers numerous treatment modalities tailored to your personal recovery needs. We focus on helping our clients find healthy ways to cope with triggers, stressors, and symptoms without the crutch of drugs or alcohol. We focus experientially and somatically on teaching clients how to disrupt their reflexive behavior patterns, moving them beyond their disorders. Our expert staff can keep you on track in recovery and help you heal. Call us today to learn more at (303) 558-6400. Your journey to healing begins at NorthStar.

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