Demystifying the Overlap between Anxiety vs Panic Attacks

Demystifying the Overlap between Anxiety vs Panic Attacks
Written By: Clinical Psychologist
Reviewed By: Counselling Psychologist
MA Psychology Pennsylvania State University, USA
Last Updated: 05-12-2023

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Anxiety and panic attacks are often used interchangeably, leading to confusion and misconceptions. While they share some common symptoms, they are distinct experiences with different characteristics and treatment approaches. Understanding the nuances between anxiety and panic attacks is crucial for effective management and overall well-being.

"Anxiety" and "Panic attack" are two different things. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease that is typically caused by stress. Panic attacks are sudden and intense episodes of fear that can be very debilitating.

How people use the term "anxiety" daily:

  • They might say they are "feeling anxious" before a big presentation or test.
  • They might say they are "anxious about" a job interview or a doctor s appointment.
  • They might say they are "having an anxiety attack" if they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

How people use the term "panic attack" daily:

  • They might say they had a "panic attack" in a crowded room.
  • They might say they are "afraid of having a panic attack" in public.
  • They might say they are "living with panic disorder" if they have frequent and severe panic attacks.

It is important to note that not everyone who uses the terms "anxiety" and "panic attack" in a casual way has these conditions. However, if you are concerned that you may be experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, it is important to talk to a doctor or mental health professional.

Anxiety: A Pervasive Unease
Anxiety is a generalized feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease that persists over time. It often manifests as a sense of dread, excessive apprehension, or anticipation of impending doom. Unlike panic attacks, anxiety symptoms typically build gradually, intensifying in response to perceived stressors.

Physical Manifestations of Anxiety:

  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Feeling on edge or easily fatigued
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbances

Emotional Symptoms of Anxiety:

  • Excessive worry about everyday matters
  • Fear of losing control or experiencing something terrible
  • Constant self-doubt and rumination
  • Irritability and mood swings

Panic Attacks: A Sudden Surge of Fear
Panic attacks, unlike anxiety, are sudden and intense episodes of overwhelming fear that strike without warning. They are characterized by a rapid surge in physical and emotional symptoms, often peaking within minutes.

Physical Symptoms of Panic Attacks:

  • Racing heart or palpitations
  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating, nausea, or chills

Emotional Symptoms of Panic Attacks:

  • A sense of impending doom or terror
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling detached from reality or depersonalization
  • Intense fear of death

Distinguishing Anxiety from Panic Attacks
The key differentiator between anxiety and panic attacks lies in the intensity, duration, and unpredictability of the experience. Anxiety is a persistent state of worry and apprehension, while panic attacks are sudden, intense episodes of fear.

Contrasting Anxiety and Panic Attacks:

  • Onset: Anxiety has a gradual onset whereas panic attacks are sudden and unpredictable.
  • Intensity: While anxiety symptoms can range in severity from mild to severe, panic attacks typically happen when a person is unable to manage extreme anxiety, which then triggers an intense and overpowering episode known as a panic attack.
  • Duration: Anxiety remains persistent over time whereas panic attacks typically occur within minutes.
  • Predictability: Anxiety is often triggered by stressors and panic attacks can occur without any warnings.
  • Physical Symptoms: Anxiety symptoms are common but the same symptoms might not always be present whereas the physical symptoms experienced in a panic attack are always present and severe in intensity.
  • Emotional Symptoms: Emotional symptoms in anxiety are prevalent but not as intense whereas in a panic attack, these are extremely intense and distressing.

Treatment Considerations:
Both anxiety and panic attacks can be effectively managed with a combination of therapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a particularly effective form of therapy for both conditions, helping individuals identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to anxiety and panic attacks. Medications, such as antidepressants and anxiolytics, can provide additional relief from symptoms.

Psychotherapeutic treatment for anxiety is a type of therapy that helps people with anxiety disorders manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Several different types of psychotherapy are effective for anxiety disorders, including:

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviours that contribute to anxiety and panic disorder. In CBT, you will learn how to recognize and challenge your automatic thoughts, which are the quick and often irrational thoughts that occur in response to situations that trigger anxiety and panic attacks. CBT is very effective for anxiety disorders, and it is the most widely recommended form of psychotherapy for these conditions. You will also learn coping skills for managing anxiety and reducing avoidance behaviours.

Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy is a type of therapy that involves gradually exposing yourself to the things or situations that you fear. In exposure therapy for anxiety and panic disorder, you will start with exposures that are low on your anxiety hierarchy, such as going close to a dog might generate fear or anxiety, thinking about panic attacks or watching videos of people having panic attacks. Gradually, you will work your way up to more difficult exposures, such as being in crowded places or going for long drives. Exposure therapy can help you to learn that the things you fear are not dangerous, and it can help you to reduce your avoidance behaviours. 

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on accepting difficult thoughts and feelings and committing to taking action by your values. ACT is effective for anxiety as well as panic disorders, and it can be helpful for people who have struggled with other forms of psychotherapy.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): MBSR is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on teaching people how to be mindful, which means paying attention to the present moment without judgment. MBSR can help people to reduce stress, panic and anxiety, and it can also improve overall well-being.

Psychotherapy can be delivered in different formats, including individual therapy, group therapy, and online therapy. The type of format that is best for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences.

If you are considering psychotherapy for anxiety, it is important to find a therapist who is experienced in treating anxiety disorders. You can ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist, or you can search for a therapist online.

Psychotherapy can be a very effective treatment for anxiety disorders. With the right treatment, you can manage your anxiety symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Anxiety and panic attacks, while sharing some similarities, are distinct experiences with unique characteristics and treatment approaches. Understanding the differences between these two conditions is essential for seeking the appropriate support and managing these challenges effectively. By recognizing the signs and symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks, individuals can take proactive steps towards regaining control and improving their overall well-being.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  2. Craske, M. G., & Barlow, D. H. (2014). Mastery of your anxieties and phobias (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.
  3. Cuijpers, P., & Wetherell, C. (2016). Generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder: Treatment implications. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 29(2), 147-153. [DOI: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000223]
  4. National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Anxiety disorders.
  5. Ollendick, T. H., & March, J. S. (2009). Cognitive behavioral therapy for childhood anxiety disorders: Therapist guide. Guilford Publications.
  6. Öst, L-G., & Hellström, K. (2020). Panic disorder with agoraphobia: Evidence-based treatment approaches. Oxford University Press.
  7. Polatin, P. (2014). What is panic attack? When anxious feelings escalate. Guilford Publications.
  8. Spitzer, R. L., Gibbon, M., & Skodal, J. (2007). Clinician s guide to the DSM-5 (3rd ed.). American Psychiatric Association.

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