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Are panic attacks and anxiety attacks the same thing?

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DifferencesWhat else could it be?TreatmentSummary
Anxiety and panic attacks have similar symptoms, but there are key differences, such as the intensity of symptoms, how long they last, and the most effective treatments.
Medically reviewed by Nicole Washington, DO, MPH
Written by Cathy Lovering
Updated on January 30, 2023

Panic attacks involve feelings of anxiety — but unlike typical anxiety, a panic attack is a sudden, short burst of intense physical and mental symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, sweating, and a sense of impending doom.

While panic attacks are defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), the term “anxiety attack” has no formal definition. People may use the term anxiety attack when reporting a panic attack.

If you’re managing panic and anxiety, know you’re not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition, affecting almost 30% of adults. Effective treatments are available, including talk therapy and medication.

Key differences between anxiety and panic attacks

A person with red, curly hair looking anxious
Katerina Kouzmitcheva/Stocksy United

Anxiety can make you feel worried and fearful even when there’s nothing dangerous happening. Anxiety is a major component of panic attacks, but they’re not the same thing.

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. People with panic disorder have panic attacks regularly and fear them arising. Anxiety and panic attacks are closely related and share many of the same symptoms.

A panic attack is when you suddenly feel overwhelmed and out of control. During a panic attack, you may be consumed with anxiety and fear. Most panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes.

Some people describe panic attacks as a sudden increase in anxiety, with noticeable physical symptoms. A panic attack may or may not have a known cause.

If you live with an anxiety disorder, you might experience panic attacks when you encounter a situation that activates your anxiety, such as specific phobias or social anxiety disorder. If you live with generalized anxiety disorder, you experience anxiety — and possibly panic attacks — frequently and in several areas of your life.

Symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety shows up differently in different people. When you feel anxious, you might notice some of the following symptoms:

  • excessive worry
  • restlessness
  • trouble concentrating
  • trouble sleeping
  • fatigue
  • feeling irritable
  • headaches or muscle aches
  • stomach pain or nausea
  • trouble swallowing
  • trembling or twitching
  • sweating
  • lightheadedness
  • shortness of breath
  • urinating more often

Symptoms of a panic attack

Panic attacks are intense bursts of anxiety symptoms. Symptoms of a panic attack can include:

  • feeling out of control
  • a sense of impending doom
  • a pounding or racing heartbeat
  • sweating or chills
  • trembling
  • trouble breathing
  • stomach pain or nausea
  • feeling weak or dizzy
  • chest pain
  • tingling or numbness in hands

What else could it be?

Other conditions share symptoms with anxiety and panic attacks. If you’re unsure of what’s causing your symptoms, it’s best to speak with a doctor.

Heart attack

A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, is when the heart doesn’t get enough blood. This can damage the heart muscle.

A heart attack is an emergency that needs immediate medical attention. Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • weakness
  • feeling faint
  • pain in the jaw, neck, back, arms, or shoulders

If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 or your local emergency number to seek immediate medical care.

Mania

A manic episode is one feature of a group of mood disorders called bipolar disorders. If you are experiencing mania, you may have some of the same physical or emotional symptoms as anxiety or panic.

Symptoms of mania include:

  • feeling elated or irritable
  • feeling “jumpy,” “wired,” or more active
  • needing less sleep
  • racing thoughts
  • feeling powerful or important, known as grandiosity
  • increased appetite for pleasurable things

Low blood sugar

Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is particularly concerning for people with diabetes. Low blood sugar is when levels are below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

Many factors can cause low blood sugar, including taking too much insulin. If you have low blood sugar, it’s important to bring it back into a typical range.

Symptoms of low blood sugar include:

  • irritability
  • confusion
  • sweating
  • shaking
  • rapid heartbeat
  • dizziness
  • hunger
  • feeling nervous or anxious

If your blood sugar gets very low, you may have more serious symptoms, such as:

  • weakness
  • problems walking or seeing
  • acting strange
  • seizures

Best treatments for panic and anxiety

If you experience anxiety or panic attacks, you may receive a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. Treatment for both conditions usually involves therapy, medications, or both.

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Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy. It helps people with anxiety or panic attacks learn new ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to the feelings that come with these conditions.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a form of CBT that treats panic disorder. It involves confronting what causes your panic in a safe, controlled way to help you stop avoiding objects or situations. During exposure therapy, you may also learn relaxation techniques.

Acceptance and commitment therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy is an alternative to CBT for people with anxiety. It focuses on mindfulness and goal setting to reduce feelings of anxiety.

Antidepressant medications (SSRIs and SNRIs)

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), two types of antidepressant medications, are prescribed for both generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

Some antidepressant medications include:

If you need help covering the cost of medications, Optum Perks free Discount Card could help you save up to 80% off prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names to see how much you may be able to save on that medication or search for a specific drug here.

Anti-anxiety medications

Anti-anxiety medications include a group of medications called benzodiazepines. Doctors may prescribe them for both generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

Some anti-anxiety medications include:

Beta-blocker medications

Beta-blocker medications may be prescribed for panic disorder. They treat heart symptoms and conditions, such as rapid heart rate.

Propranolol (Inderal) is a common beta-blocker for anxiety.

If you need help covering the cost of anxiety medications, the Optum Perks free Discount Card could help you get up to 80% off prescription medication. See how much you can save on your medication here.

Summary

Anxiety and panic attacks are closely related. Many people with anxiety disorders experience panic attacks — especially those with panic disorder. Panic attacks are brief, intense periods of anxiety.

Treatment for panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder involves talk therapy and medications. Symptoms of a panic or anxiety attack can also mirror those of other conditions, such as heart attack, manic episodes, and low blood sugar.

When in doubt, it’s best to talk with a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or therapist. 

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