Anxiety attack vs panic attack—here’s what each means when it comes to your mental health

What's the actual difference between an anxiety attack vs panic attack? Our experts break it down

Woman looking anxious, anxiety attack vs panic attack
(Image credit: Getty)

There are lots of words thrown around when it comes to describing our mental health. They can often be a useful way to express how we are feeling and articulate what's going on in our minds. However, sometimes these phrases and terms can be confusing or get unhelpfully conflated with one another.

This is the case when discussing an anxiety attack versus a panic attack. The two are frequently used interchangeably but actually have two very different meanings. One is a clinical term while the other is not, and they also vary in severity and occurrence.

If you've always wondered what sets them apart—and, importantly which of the two you're experiencing—we've called on the experts to explain the key differences and how to spot them apart by their symptoms and intensity.

While, as you'll learn, anxiety and panic attacks aren't one and the same, there are similarities in the way you can manage both and keep your mental well-being in check—from practicing breathing techniques with the best meditation apps and seeking professional treatment (here are the differences between therapy vs counseling) to eating well and prioritizing sleep. Here's all you need to know.

Anxiety attack vs panic attack—what’s the difference?

While they are often used in place of one another, anxiety attacks and panic attacks are not the same.

“Anxiety is a normal human emotion that we all experience, for instance before an important exam or job interview," says Dr. Ian Nnatu, a psychiatrist at Doctify. "Sometimes it can start to interfere with everyday functioning, which is when we would refer to this as an anxiety disorder.”

This is different from panic attacks, which are "sudden and intense feelings of fear or anxiety that can occur sometimes without warning,” the doc explains. “The body’s fight or flight response is activated, leading to various physical symptoms such as palpitations, breathlessness, nausea and dizziness. They are much more intense feelings of anxiety, with more pronounced feelings of fear, dread and physical symptoms of anxiety.” 

There's another key factor that sets them apart. “An anxiety attack, unlike a panic attack, is not a clinical term,” explains psychologist Dr. Alison McClymont. “The former describes a sense of stress, worry or dread that causes the sufferer to experience physically distressing symptoms, but it is unlikely to evoke the feeling of an impending threat to life or ‘depersonalization’—that's losing touch with physical reality—that can happen during a panic attack.”

She continues: “A panic attack is a symptom of a clinically recognized 'panic disorder,' which is a condition where the sufferer experiences debilitating fear or distress and may have trouble breathing or orientating themselves in reality. It may come on suddenly or the sufferer may feel it 'building.'”

Woman breathing

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How do you tell anxiety apart from a panic attack?

“The main difference is the speed with which they arrive, whether they are triggered by a specific event or come out of the blue, and intensity of the symptoms,” says Mark Newey, psychotherapist and founder of the mental wellbeing platform

Anxiety tends to build up over a period of time, “to the point where a sudden exposure to the trigger causes an anxiety ‘attack’ to happen,” explains Newey. "This is an instant and sudden increase in the level of the anxiety symptoms. This can include a racing heart, breathlessness, nausea, dizziness, sweating, and restlessness, as well as feeling wound up, irritable, on edge and suffering from insomnia or fatigue."

Dr. McClymont notes that while an anxiety attack may feel less "severe," panic attacks tend to come on stronger. “They will likely cause extreme distress, and possibly an inability to breathe or communicate,” she explains. They may also take you by surprise. “Panic attacks are defined by their randomness,” continues Newey. “There doesn't need to be a specific trigger—they just crop up out of the blue—and can last from five to 30 minutes. The symptoms are similar to those of an anxiety attack, but are more intense, leading to a feeling of being about to lose control or even pass out." What's more, Katharina Wolf, a qualified counselor, notes that they can cause shallow breathing, meaning less oxygen getting to your tissue in the body, causing pain that feels like a heart attack.

That said, they are both intertwined. “If someone has previously experienced a panic attack, they may develop anxiety around having another—due to the extreme upset or even embarrassment it might cause,” explains Dr. McClymont. “In short, if you are feeling a tight chest, racing heart, sweaty palms and racing thoughts, but you do not feel you are in danger of dying or you have lost touch with reality, it is likely you are feeling anxiety rather than having a panic attack.”

What should you do about anxiety or a panic attack?

The good news is that there are tools you can enlist to help you cope with both anxiety and panic attacks, as well as methods to prevent or reduce their occurrence. “The key to dealing with both is to return one's breathing to normal,” says Newey. “This is most easily done by lying down—to reduce nausea and dizziness—and putting one's hand over the belly and actively breathing in deeply and out slowly." What's more, if you're to learn how to relax in general, then getting your inhale and exhale under control is vital.

And how to ward them off in the first place? "Lifestyle interventions can help," says Dr. Nnatu. “Try reducing stress, taking regular exercise, getting enough sleep, having a healthy balanced diet, as well as lowering intake of alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. Also add in activities to aid those aforementioned breathing techniques, like yoga and mindfulness—which can both be done at home." 

Whatever you do, don’t ignore them. “Both types of 'attack' arise because of unresolved anxiety,” notes Newey. “The panic attacks probably result from a much longer timeline. Either way, anxiety is a signal from our system that something in our life is not right and that we need to make alterations. It is our warning system working properly; we need to pay attention and change something. Once we've felt the anxiety, we need to do some internal reflection on what is making us anxious and what we need to tweak in our lives to remove it.”

For some people, it may be important to seek professional guidance. "If you're experiencing immense distress or are finding it's impacting the normal functioning of life—such as preventing you from leaving the house, going to work or socializing—you can approach your GP, who may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication to assist your recovery," explains Dr. McClymont. “Panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder is very treatable.”

Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. Most recently, she has been the Acting Commissioning Editor of Women's Health—where she co-produced the Going For Goal podcast—and has previously also written news and features for titles including The Telegraph, Grazia, Stylist, Dazed, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss. She covers all aspects of lifestyle, specializing in health, beauty, and travel. Can't live without: oat milk lattes, new podcast episodes, long walks, and great skincare.