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Panic Attack versus Anxiety Attack: What's the Difference?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health illness in the United States. And anxiety is even more common in people with HIV. One out of 5 people with HIV has severe daily anxiety. Compare that to 1 out of more than 30 people in the general population. Stigma, poverty, and unstable housing could play a role in why so many people with HIV also have anxiety.1-2

Constant stress and worry can lead to panic or anxiety attacks. Symptoms of anxiety and a panic attack are similar. It can be hard to tell what is happening to your body. Knowing the differences can help you identify triggers and symptoms.3-4

Anxiety and panic attacks

Anxiety and panic attacks activate the nervous system. They cause physical and emotional symptoms. Some people will call a panic attack an anxiety attack or label their anxiety a panic attack. But anxiety and panic are different responses. They are triggered in different ways.3-4

Anxiety

Anxiety happens to everyone. It is a reaction to anticipating stressful situations. Anxiety can cause physical changes to your heart rate and blood pressure. It is a feeling of:3-5

  • Stress
  • Worry
  • Uneasiness
  • Dread

Anxiety attack

“Anxiety attack” is not a clinical term. Anxiety usually builds up gradually. Most people use “anxiety attack” to describe when stress hits a breaking point. It can happen when worrying about a future event or outcome.3-5

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders occur when anxiety disrupts everyday life. With an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away. It can get worse over time. People with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can fixate on everyday situations. People with an anxiety disorder may have trouble controlling their emotions.3-6

Panic attacks

Panic attacks are sudden and intense episodes of fear and anxiety. The body’s fight-or-flight response takes over. Fight-or-flight is the body’s strong physical response to danger or perceived danger. Physical symptoms can be intense.3-5,7

Something can trigger a panic attack. Or they can happen for no reason. Panic attacks typically last less than 30 minutes.3-5,7

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. People with panic disorder have repeated panic attacks.3,5,7

What causes an anxiety disorder?

Doctors do not fully understand what causes an anxiety disorder. For some, an underlying medical issue can be the cause. Family history can play a role. Built-up stress or a traumatic event can trigger an anxiety disorder.5,8

What causes a panic attack?

Experts do not know the exact cause of panic attacks. A sudden dangerous or stressful event can trigger them. Or you can have an intense reaction to an ordinary situation. You are at higher risk of a panic attack if you have a family history of mental illness or substance abuse.7

Symptoms of anxiety

People with GAD worry most days for at least 6 months. That fear is disruptive. The stress can be about a variety of things, like family, work, or money.5-6,8

Symptoms of anxiety can include:6,8

  • Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
  • Feeling a sense of danger or panic
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Heavy breathing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Digestive problems
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trouble focusing on anything besides the current worry
  • Wanting to avoid certain situations

Symptoms of a panic attack

A panic attack happens suddenly. After it starts, there is no way to stop a panic attack. Symptoms are usually most intense, about 10 minutes into an attack.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:3,7

  • Faster than usual heart rate
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Trouble breathing
  • Feelings of choking or suffocation
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Chills or overheating
  • Fear that you are dying
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Feelings of terror

Talking to your doctor about anxiety and panic attacks

Talk to your doctor if you have any symptoms of anxiety or a panic attack. Your doctor may want to run some tests. That way, they can make sure another medical condition is not causing your symptoms.3,6,7

Your doctor may offer mental health treatment options. They might refer you to a mental health professional, such as a counselor. A counselor can help you learn coping strategies. Learning to identify triggers can help you avoid episodes of anxiety and panic.3,6,7

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