A psychologist explains the difference between an anxiety and panic attack
Google searches for 'panic attack' and 'anxiety attack' have hit an all-time high during the coronavirus, but would you be able to tell the difference between the two? Psychologist Nancy Sokarno explains how they differ and provides ways to deal with each.
2020 has undoubtedly affected us, especially our mental health. If you’ve been feeling a little out of sorts lately or perhaps even concerned about your wellbeing, you’re not alone. In fact, Google searches for ‘panic attack,’ and ‘anxiety attack’ hit an all-time high during the coronavirus pandemic, signalling that managing and improving mental health and psychological wellbeing needs to be a priority.
But what’s the difference between an anxiety and panic attack? They might have similarities, but the two are actually completely different. Here, Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno explains those differences, and what you can do about each.
What is an anxiety attack?
Many people use the phrases ‘anxiety attack’ and ‘panic attack’ interchangeably, but those specific phrases can mean different things to different people. If someone says that they had an anxiety attack, they often mean they felt anxious or were suffering from feelings of anxiety, or perhaps they felt the symptoms of a panic attack.
Anxiety symptoms can vary in intensity ranging from mild to severe, with symptoms often becoming gradually more intense over time. Anxiety attacks are related to situations in which you can anticipate as stressful or threatening. An anxiety attack is more correlated to stressors; when we look at event versus reaction, it’s more proportionate in nature.
When someone is suffering from an anxiety attack, they may feel a sense of heightened arousal, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing/shortness of breath. Fear is often induced in these situations by direct stressors, such as being followed whilst walking home at night, someone breaking into your home, or being chased by a dog.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack on the other hand is not necessarily due to a direct stressor and can appear suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.
A panic attack will trigger a fight and flight response where the person becomes emotionally distressed and it’s usually visible. It’s an intense and disruptive feeling, often involving a sense of detachment from reality. Similar to anxiety attacks, individuals will often report heart racing, difficulty breathing, chest pain, shakiness, sweating, stomach aches/nausea or crying and vomiting if it’s quite severe. Some people who experience panic attacks, panic about having another panic attack as it comes on without warning and they feel apprehensive about when it will return, thus avoiding places, situations or people in which a panic attack may have occurred.
Main difference between an anxiety and panic attack
The main way that anxiety and panic attacks differ is best described in terms of the intensity of the symptoms and the length of time that they occur. If someone experiences feelings associated with anxiety or panic attacks, it’s important to understand the differences to ensure you treat it correctly. If someone doesn’t know what they are experiencing, it can be difficult to find the appropriate treatment or develop the right coping mechanisms. Below are some treatment options for anxiety and panic attacks:
Treatment options for anxiety attacks
Some ways to manage anxiety disorders include:
- Mindfulness techniques such as journaling
- Self-care activities such as taking a bath
- Relaxation techniques such techniques meditation and yoga
- Correct breathing techniques
- Dietary adjustments
- Exercise in any form, from walking through more intense forms
- Building self-esteem through self-love exercises
- Sessions with a psychologist who can provide coping techniques and Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Treatment options for panic attacks
Some ways to manage panic attack include:
- Breathing techniques that focus on as slow and deeply breathing
- Exercises that centre breath and focus
- Mindfulness techniques
- Exercise can help to manage stress levels and release tension
- Eating regular meals can help to stabilise blood sugar levels
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol as these substances have been known to make a panic attack worse
- Panic support groups
- Sessions with a psychologist who can provide coping techniques and Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to identify and change negative thought patterns