What is the Difference Between a Panic Attack and Anxiety?


Anxiety disorders affect around 18 percent of Americans, yet our collective understanding of the condition is tenuous at best. Many are unclear on the aspects that distinguish anxiety from a panic attack and use the terms interchangeably. However, anxiety and panic attacks are actually distinct conditions ? although sometimes linked, and sometimes co-occurring. So how can you tell the difference?


Anxiety is a long-term condition that usually comes on gradually and intensifies over time ? unlike a panic attack, which is much more abrupt and intense. People suffering from anxiety are affected by excessive worry or fear about basic, everyday situations and tasks. This can manifest in many different ways, depending on the type of anxiety disorder. Some people may have difficulty making phone calls, while others spend an inordinate amount of time and energy stressing out over routine tasks. Others may experience a more generalized sense of dread, unease and impending doom.

Common symptoms of anxiety include fatigue, restlessness, irritability or edginess, impaired concentration, racing thoughts and sleep disturbances (such as difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares). It may also incorporate physical symptoms such as muscle tension or soreness, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness or an elevated startle response.

Specific anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, social phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder.


Panic attacks are in many ways similar to anxiety, but distinguishable by their relative intensity and brevity. A panic attack usually lasts less than 30 minutes, although it can be longer, or manifest as one in a series of panic attacks occurring in quick succession. Panic attacks come on very suddenly, and although they can be triggered by external stimuli, it is often the case that there is no obvious trigger for the attack.

You may be experiencing a panic attack if you notice four or more of the following symptoms:

  • accelerated heart rate

  • excessive sweating

  • trembling

  • difficulty breathing

  • a choking sensation

  • chest discomfort

  • nausea or abdominal discomfort

  • dizziness or lightheadedness

  • feelings of detachment or unreality

  • a fear of losing control or "going crazy," a fear of dying

  • numbness or tingling, and chills or hot flashes.

Panic attacks are often associated with intense feelings that one is dying; some people even mistake them for heart attacks. In the aftermath of a panic attack, you may continue to experience feelings of stress, worry or extra energy for the rest of the day.

Panic attacks are often experienced by people who suffer from anxiety. However, not all people who have an anxiety disorder will experience a panic attack in their lifetime.


Women are nearly twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder as men are. There is also some evidence that anxiety may have a genetic link. It can also be linked to deeper medical issues, or occur as a side effect of a medication. In people already at risk for anxiety, it is more likely to manifest among those who have had traumatic life experiences or who have a history of substance abuse.


Anxiety can be crippling, but with so many ways to cope, there's no need to allow it to impact your life. Through our varied services, including large- and small-group sessions, one-on-one psychotherapy, medication management, cognitive therapy and spiritual counseling, we can help you make anxiety a thing of your past. Get in touch with Affinity today to discuss your treatment options. see also our inpatient anxiety treatment