“Anxiety attack” and “panic attack” are phrases often used interchangeably, but anxiety and panic and not the same. “They’re very different emotional conditions,” said Rick Warren, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.
A panic attack is a feature of panic disorder. During a panic attack, a person may experience an elevated heart rate, trouble breathing, sweating, nausea, dizziness, and a whole host of physical symptoms. The symptoms come on suddenly, either in response to a known trigger or out of nowhere, and their intensity peaks within ten minutes or less.
Anxiety, on the other hand, while often coupled with physical symptoms like a racing heart or trouble sleeping, builds more gradually than panic. Anxiety builds over a period of time. Getting married in six months and not so sure of your choice? That could give a person anxiety, technically described as excessive and persistent worry over a perceived “danger.” Mating for life with the wrong person? — That’ll do it. But anxiety can also be an intense, ongoing concern about everyday concerns; such as traffic, taxes, and doctors appointments.
How to Distinguish an Anxiety Attack
The key word is anticipating. When you’re worried about dying, that’s anxiety. When you have a gun to your head, that’s fear. Understanding the difference between anxiety and fear is key to understanding your anxiety attack.
“Biologically, panic attacks are associated with the autonomic nervous system and the amygdala — places designed to detect threat and danger,” Warren clarified. “And anxiety is associated with the prefrontal cortex, which has to do with planning and anticipating.”
Anxiety and panic can share some physical symptoms, like accelerated heart rate, chest pain, and shortness of breath, but only one of them is officially recognized by mental health professionals. Mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to recognize and diagnose patients. The DSM-5 recognizes panic attacks, and categorizes them as unexpected or expected. It does not recognize “anxiety attacks.”
If the intensity of your anxiety over work stress or a health issue reaches a fever pitch, it could feel like an “attack.” You may experience muscle tension, have difficulty sleeping, be unable to concentrate, or feel dizzy. You may even scare more easily. The “attack” may last as long as you’re dealing with the stressor. Anxiety might be mild, moderate, or severe, with low-grade symptoms or intense ones. What anxiety always is, however, is persistent.
“When the stressor goes away,” Cathy Frank, M.D., Director, Outpatient Behavioral Health Services, Henry Ford Hospital told ABC News, “so does the anxiety attack.” At least until the new worry comes along, as those with generalized anxiety will know so well.
But when it comes to the term “anxiety attack,” some professionals find it a confusing misnomer, not to mention a poor description of what anxiety feels like. Lily Brown, PhD, director of research with the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, advises against using the term “anxiety attack” altogether. “Attack” implies something swift, but anxiety symptoms don’t tend to come on quickly, nor do they pass quickly, either.
Anxiety ultimately puts our body into slow motion. Most of the time, people tend to feel things at a slower pace than normal, which in itself, can be very uncomfortable.
Furthermore, the strategies for coping with panic and anxiety are very different. Use the terms interchangeably, and you might muddy the path to feeling better. Often, “anxiety attacks” correlated to real and specific dangers aren’t a problem. Not only are they normal, they can also be helpful.