What is the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack?

Having had both, I feel like I’m overqualified to write this article, but as I was discussing this issue with someone the other day, I realized something: As careful as I like to be in my language – particularly when discussing mental health and mental illness – I had goofed. There is a difference between the two, and an important one at that.

What is it? From what I can tell and what I’ve researched, it seems to me that panic attacks are the dramatically more painful experiences, the ones which make it feel like your chest is going to explode out of your body.

There are a ton of similarities, of course. Both come with painful physical symptoms, including chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness, upset stomach and other fun things. Both come with an overwhelming sense of fear.

However, anxiety attacks are more characterized by worry and distress. Panic attacks are the ones where you feel as if you have to escape from wherever you are, right now. They often come out of nowhere, whereas anxiety attacks are usually caused by some stress or worry.

It this a distinction without a difference? I’d say no. Panic attacks – if experienced repeatedly – can be beyond debilitating. They can safely be described as “intense and disruptive.” Anxiety attacks can as well, but I’d argue that they are less frightening, and perhaps less painful.

Why does this matter? Because words matter. There’s a reason that there have been so many efforts to watch how we discuss suicide. Phrasing things one way or the other can have implications. It can also affect treatment – anxiety and panic are two different things. Indeed, the notion of an anxiety attack isn’t even a diagnosable illness, but a panic disorder absolutely is.

I’d also add that we need to make sure we don’t confuse these two things because how we discuss them can alter how others respond to them. Panic implies immediate danger and something to be deeply worried about right now. Anxiety, at least to me, implies an ongoing and persistent fear and worry.

Does this make sense to you? Please let me know your thoughts, and if you think this is the right idea or not.

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