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Panic attacks vs anxiety attacks: what’s the difference & what do you do?

4 minute read

Anxiety can take many forms, so you need to know exactly what you’re dealing with to get back to a happier, healthier mindset. With that in mind, Vhi Health Coach Dr Mou Sultana clears up common confusion between anxiety and panic attacks… and offers relief for both.

Considering how so much anxiety stems from a fear of the unknown or unarticulated, the confusing language used to describe it is less than ideal. Especially for those people who are suffering and, indeed, anxious to get to the bottom of it. This can then add to your health anxiety!

Amidst the abundance of anxiety-related content you can find online (but can’t always verify) one question crops up repeatedly around anxiety’s more intense manifestations.

What’s the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

While you might see them used interchangeably, they are, in fact, quite different.

So, let’s demystify this particular “unknown” and tell you how you can best manage both situations.

First things first: anxiety is a very complex, multi-layered phenomena. As such, it can be tough to identify a “cause” for the feelings of unease that we all experience to some degree in our lives.

Risk factors can include:

  • Trauma
  • Certain personality types
  • Other mental health disorders
  • Stress due to illness
  • Drugs or alcohol

Signs of anxiety can also manifest at any age.

What’s a panic attack?

A panic attack is actually a feature of anxiety. One notable identifier of a panic attack is that it can happen during any stage of anxiety – or even when you’ve been in a calm state.

It will come on like a surge of intense fear or discomfort and peak within minutes. It can bring a host of unpleasant and downright scary symptoms with it, but it’s important to remember that they will soon pass.

These symptoms can point towards a panic attack:

  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feeling that you can’t breathe (or are about to choke)
  • Not feeling connected to the ground or surroundings (weightlessness)
  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Fear of dying

Having a panic attack does not necessarily mean you have a mental health disorder, but it can occur as part of disorders related to depression, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and as part of some medical conditions. See your GP if you have any concerns.

How do you deal with a panic attack?

Don’t fight your body: Focus on your breathing and remind yourself to breathe as slowly as possible. Avoid hyperventilating, as getting more oxygen than you need can increase the chance of fainting.

Reassure yourself: It might seem long in the moment, but your panic attack should peak within 10 minutes. Keep that American Psychiatric Association-backed guidance in mind and rest assured that you’ll be back to your old self within a half hour.

Ground yourself: This can be as simple as watching your feet planted firmly on the ground. Find a method that works for you. Popular ones that offer fast-acting relief include:

Self-talk: replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations. You can start with a simple: “This is just a panic attack.” Other statements that may help:

  • I can handle these symptoms until they pass.
  • My emotions are like waves and this will just roll over me.
  • This feeling isn’t comfortable, but I can accept it.

The 54321 Technique: Name 5 things you see around you. Then focus on 4 things you can feel. Next, name 3 things you hear. Follow this with 2 things you can smell. Finally, focus on what you can taste. Or simply name a taste you like.

Visualisation: Locate the panicked sensation in your body. Then imagine it as a dark cloud. Take a deep breath and as you exhale, imagine this cloud being expelled. As you continue, visualise it in front of you and watch as it floats away, until it disappears completely.

Vhi members get €30 off meditation apps

How is an anxiety attack different?

This is a period of heightened anxiety due to some stressor or anticipation of some future “threat”. There is a slow build-up: you will already have anxiety somewhere in the background and it will gradually intensify. If you have social anxiety, for instance, the prospect of speaking or performing in public can bring it on.

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Increased startle response
  • Increased heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Fatigue

When stress levels become overwhelming, you can say you’re experiencing an attack. However, we can minimise its impact ahead of time. That’s why it is important to learn your own personal triggers and prepare.

Things you can do to minimise intensity:

  • Learn self-talk: practicing positive affirmations outside of an attack will make it easier to draw on when necessary and improve wellbeing in general.
  • Eat healthily and exercise: a cliché because it works! Yoga and pilates are safe ways to physically de-stress. Any sensory-focused exercises and low-to-moderate intensity resistance exercises are recommended.
  • Figure out what relaxes you: natural remedies for anxiety include going for a walk, talking to someone, taking a hot bath or listening to music. Keeping a mood diary will help you identify what you enjoy about regular life.
  • Avoid alcohol and substance abuse
  • Practice compassion for yourself
  • Seek support

We’ve disentangled both terms, removing the unknowns and equipping you with methods for dealing with anxiety. However, it can still be tough to take proactive steps or reassure yourself when you are anxious. If you need any further support for your anxiety, or have concerns about what’s causing your symptoms, further expert help is always at hand. And, as ever, your GP is often the best port of call.

Vhi-24/7- Support Line

For immediate support from trained volunteers, you can speak to Samaritans Ireland at any time, free-of-charge. Call their 24-hour helpline on 116 123 or click here for more information.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

Mou Sultana

Dr Mou Sultana

Vhi Health Coach

Chartered Psychologist and Psychotherapist