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

written by: Jean Scheid • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 7/18/2010

If you suffer from panic or anxiety disorder, have you ever wondered what is the difference between panic and anxiety attacks? Many of us think these two types of attacks mean the same thing, however, to mental health experts, they are actually different. Jean Scheid looks at both.

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    Why Do We Have Anxiety and Panic?

    Human brain Those of us who suffer from either a panic or anxiety disorder, often feel frustrated when attempting to describe our symptoms or are embarrassed to discuss the disorder. Before I answer the question what is the difference between panic and anxiety attacks, there is a statement I heard years ago that indeed makes sense for people who suffer from any mental disorder.

    “Of all the organs within our bodies, scientists know the least about the brain and how it functions or even causes certain mental disorders." Although I don’t remember where I heard this, the statement alone should be enough evidence that anyone who suffers from excessive anxiety or panic episodes should not be embarrassed and seek treatment to help them deal with the disorder.

    Surprisingly, approximately 40 million adults in the US suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. Further, there are all types of anxiety and panic disorders that are caused by different sorts of mental health conditions including generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to name just a few.

    Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Human_brain.png)

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    Anxiety Attacks Vs Panic Attacks

    Because the brain is an amazing and not fully understood organ, some of us may use the term panic and anxiety interchangeably. Many people can feel anxious from time to time in situations that are new, unexpected, or stressful. When either panic or anxiety affects how we function each day, it’s time to learn what is the difference between panic and anxiety attacks.

    People who suffer from abnormal anxiety attacks or those that interfere with daily activities are often fearful or apprehensive of something. That something is often called a “stressor" or “trigger." Say you don’t like heights and are faced with driving or walking over a very high bridge; this can cause an anxiety attack. The person may feel like they are unable to breathe or think clearly, they feel dizzy, and often feel like their heart is pounding or racing within their chest. Usually, but not always, when the stressor or trigger is taken away, the anxiety ceases.

    Panic attacks do not necessarily mean that a stressor must be present. They can develop for no explained reason and include many of the same symptoms as an anxiety attack, only usually more severe. Beyond the inability to breathe properly and a pounding chest, severe dizziness or fuzzy feelings can be present. A person experiencing a panic attack can feel like they are within an invisible hole, and very alone. Some suffers may see spots, sweat profusely, and feel like there are tiny bugs running through their bodies. In fact, the symptoms can vary so much from person to person, it’s impossible to determine all of them.

    While anxiety attacks may be shorter in length, if not controlled, they can develop into full blown panic attacks.

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    When to Seek Help

    Lifetime Prevalence of Anxiety Disorders (ECA Study) Wikimeda Commons Whether you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, it’s time to get help if the episodes are too much for you to live your life normally. A stressor can cause anxiety and if the trigger is not relieved, a full blown panic attack can occur. Both anxiety and panic can prevent sufferers from leaving safe places such as their home. Some of us may be fine driving to the grocery store or mall but feel anxious about leaving the vehicle and entering the establishment for fear of having a panic attack in a crowded place. Fear of groups is also a common factor among both panic and anxiety disorders.

    If you feel either your panic or anxiety is keeping you from daily events, it’s time to seek help. Even those of us who say they can’t afford help, in cities both large and small, there is free or affordable help from city or county organizations. So, if you feel this is you, don’t suffer alone.

    When answering the question what is the difference between panic and anxiety attacks, the difference can be subtle to some and severe to others. Allowing either of these disorders to control your life, however, can turn both into other mental health problems that can become very difficult to manage alone. Talk first with your medical provider who can refer you to mental health provider you can afford or one that is covered under your health insurance policy. Follow through with that recommended visit and talk to family members or close friends about your panic or anxiety. Often, you’ll find many of them suffer from similar types of attacks and both excessive anxiety and panic disorders can run in families, so do keep that in mind.

    Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lifetime_Prevalence_of_Anxiety_Disorders_(ECA_Study).jpg)

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    References

    ABC News Online (7/16/10) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AnxietyOverview/story?id=4659738

    Anxiety/Panic.com (7/16/10) http://www.anxietypanic.com/

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