The terms ‘panic attack’ and ‘anxiety attack’ are often used interchangeably, but the truth is, they’re not the same thing. Knowing the difference between them can help focus your attention on getting the true help you need. Having awareness of which you’re dealing with and using the right terms can be especially useful when speaking to a doctor or mental health professional — so they can point you in the right direction and offer the right kind of support.
To find the clinical definitions, we can look to the DSM-5 — the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders. The DSM is a widely recognized and respected handbook used by healthcare professionals (and much of the world) to guide diagnosis of mental health disorders.
It may be surprising to know that the term ‘anxiety attack’ is not defined or recognized by the DSM-5. However, anxiety is listed as a feature of other mental health disorders like OCD, PTSD, and Panic Disorder (more on this later). Anxiety can be complex and it’s symptoms can vary from person to person. If you feel you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, we strongly recommend speaking to a doctor or mental health professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Panic attacks, on the other hand, are explicitly listed in the DSM-5 as the primary feature associated with panic disorder. However, it’s also possible to experience a panic attack with no diagnosed mental health disorder.
A panic attack can come on intensely and suddenly. As previously mentioned, you may experience feelings of anxiety leading up to the panic attack. Panic attacks are a sudden feeling of discomfort, terror, and fear. This can be an extremely overwhelming experience, and can last from just a few minutes to 30 minutes — however, repeat panic attacks can recur one after another. Recurring panic attacks may be a sign of panic disorder.
Panic attack symptoms can include:
- Feeling a loss of control
- Pounding or racing heart
- Shaking or trembling
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
Panic attacks can also fall into two different categories: expected or unexpected. An expected panic attack can come on when facing an external stressor, like something you’re fearful of. For example, you’re scared of flying and you’re getting on an airplane in a few hours. If you experience a panic attack, it’s reasonable to say it came on because you faced your fear — making that panic attack expected. Unexpected panic attacks, on the other hand, can occur without an obvious cause.
Getting help for panic attacks and anxiety
Though panic attacks and anxiety are different, they’re interconnected and share some of the same features. No matter which you’re experiencing, it’s important to reach out for support by speaking to friends, family, and a mental health professional.
A counsellor can help you unpack your panic attacks and anxiety, and equip you with positive coping tools. Get the help you deserve.