What’s the difference between a panic attack vs anxiety attack?

Having anxiety disorder along with bipolar disorder whenever an attack came on I just assumed it was an anxiety attack. I couldn’t be more wrong. In the past three years what I thought was me having simple anxiety attacks was way off. I was in fact, having panic attacks.

Both panic attacks and anxiety attacks have similar symptoms. So, it was no wonder I confused the two. However, there are subtle differences and even a few BIGGER ones you need to be aware of so that when you consult with your doctor, you know how to describe what you are feeling and what is happening to you.

So what is the difference?

I could be lying on the sofa watching something funny, laughing along and feeling good inside. When all of a sudden — I begin to feel my heart palpitate. I feel sweaty and disconnected as though I’m here but not here, kinda depersonalized. I get pain in my chest which I always confuse with having a heart attack. and I feel short of breath. I feel as though the Grim Reaper himself is ready to walk through my door at any moment to whisk me away from everything I know and love. And that’s when the fear escalates even further to the point where I fear I’m going to die.

There doesn’t have to be a trigger to have a panic attack. Such as being around a group of people. Being stuck in an elevator. Doing something that frightens you.

When having a panic attack the symptoms are extreme as described above, and they can result in a huge shift in your daily balance of life. Panic attacks occur out of the blue and most likely caused by a phobia of some kind.


Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2018. 

Panic attacks don’t last very long but feel as though they continue forever. At least for me they do. And once they are over, I am often left feeling extremely out of sorts, upset and even cry really hard until I’m so tired I just need to sleep.

If you have four or more of these symptoms, it’s time for you to talk to your doctor to get the help you need so your life doesn’t feel so flipped upside down. Asking for help is key!

Symptoms to watch for

  • Heart palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  • Chills or hot flashes
Photograph via Pixbay

So what is anxiety and how is it different from having a panic attack?

Well, it’s quite simple to recognize. In all honesty, I thought the two were one in the same. They are not. The symptoms of anxiety can last weeks, even months. Anxiety is persistent and usually triggered by something. It’s a build up to a fear or worry you have when dealing with a high amount of stress.

I have several days and weeks where anxiety plays a consistent role in my life. Usually when my stress level is on the rise. An example would be getting invited to a party. I hate being surrounded by groups of people, and often my anxiety will “go through the roof” as I say as the party date draws near.

Suffering from anxiety disorder isn’t easy. Neither is having a panic attack or panic disorder. I’m beginning to realize I have both. I guess they go hand in hand for some people. When I have anxiety I get irritable, moody, even angry. I don’t sleep well. I feel tense all the time. I even feel dizzy sometimes.

But I do know the difference now between having an anxiety attack and having a panic attack. One makes me feel as though I’m going to die and visits me for no reason. The other is a manifestation of the stress I’m dealing with and causes me to feel upset and irritated in dealing with a situation I don’t want to deal with.

The bottom line…

If you are feeling any of these things. If you feel can’t cope. Feel alone or disassociated with yourself. If you get dizzy or irritated with certain things that go beyond just a few moments in time. Then it’s time for you to seek help. Talk to your doctor about solutions for dealing with your feelings.

Make sure you seek out the support of a group dealing with the same issues you are. Reach out to a friend so you have someone to talk to. Just get help. Because without help, you are trapped inside a world that can often feel like a labyrinth without no way out.

Have you ever had a panic attack or deal with anxiety disorder? What are some things you do to get through it?