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.

4 ways to stop an anxiety attack

I’ve had a particularly interesting internal debate – well, interesting to me, anyway – about which is worse, depression or anxiety.  I’ve repeatedly come to the conclusion that, at least with the way I have both, I’d rather have depression than anxiety.  Don’t get me wrong – both suck something fierce.  That being said, with depression, if it isn’t too severe, you can still function.  Anxiety, and particularly anxiety attacks makes doing basic tasks next to impossible.

College was the worst for me in that regards.  I would have periodic anxiety attacks, usually brought on by a particular situation.  I developed fears of set events – travelling in buses or planes, for example – that caused me to avoid travelling in general.  Therapy and medication helped get me through, but I still remember how traumatic those events were.  I remember not being able to travel on a bus with my coworkers because I was so, so scared of having an anxiety attack.  Or having a major one while traveling for work that almost caused me to run off of a plane.

Learning how to control my anxiety is what got me through those dark times, and learning how to stop an anxiety attack before it started – or at least how to stop one once it was underway – was immeasurably helpful.  Learning these skills gave me the confidence that I needed to believe that I could survive the worst anxiety attack, and that taught me how to live again.

With that, here’s a few techniques that I’ve successfully used in order to try and head off an anxiety attack before it started, and cool one down when it began.

Oh, and standard disclaimer: I’m not a Doctor or professional. I’m a guy with a blog.  Don’t let my random thoughts stop you from seeking professional, medical advice!

1) Pick a number.  Count to seven.  And keep going.  One of the things I found when I was at my worst was that the brain desperately needed a distraction.  I believe it was a therapist who first made this suggestion to me: Pick a task and run with it.  Pick a random number – 136.  Add 7.  And keep going.  This will, hopefully, distract your brain enough to stop the anxiety attack in its tracks.

2) Breathing Exercises.  There are a ton of variations on this, and there is also ample evidence that anxiety and depression can be ameliorated in the long run with proper breathing techniques.  When I was younger, I found this to be particularly effective, particularly when I first started suffering from anxiety attacks.  I would literally sit there in 8th grade homeroom and say to myself, “There is nothing else but your breath.  Take a deep breath.  Fill your chest as much as possible.  In through your nose and out through your mouth.”

For a more formal exercise, click here.

3) Pick an object.  Any object.  This is related to the first technique.  Getting yourself out of an anxiety attack often means changing the way that you are thinking in order to stop yourself from cycling through panic.  To that end, find an object.  It can be simple or complex.  Stare at that object.  Get lost in it’s texture and colors.  How does it look?  What does it do?  Is it moving?  What are it’s colors?  Rough or smooth? Ask yourself simple questions, and then allow those questions to become more complex.  Remember, the goal here is to get your mind to concentrate on anything other than the panic.

For me, when I was at my worst, the challenge with this was trying to get myself to concentrate on an object, because starting too long at something could make me feel worse.  If that’s the case for you, no problem!  If one object doesn’t work, try picking a different one.  Or, allow yourself to look away for a moment before coming back to the object in question, and starting the cycle over.

4) Call someone.  I found that conversations with others – people I trusted, who wouldn’t judge – could be helpful.  If you allow yourself to get lost in your own mind, you can get yourself into trouble.  To that end, talk to someone you trust and love.  Talk about the anxiety attack.  Talk about the weather.  Do whatever works for you, but just make sure that you can get out of your own head.

As always, these are just suggestions, just my thoughts.  Have better ones?  Let us know in the comments!