Though some people may joke that they would have an anxiety or panic attack over the thought of facing a particular situation, having an attack like that is no laughing matter.
Many struggle with these attacks regularly. So let’s get some facts so we can understand exactly what these attacks look and feel like, and be able to support our friends and family who suffer from these afflictions. Here are the differences between a panic attack and an anxiety attack, plus strategies for coping with them if they happen to you or a loved one.
How Panic Attacks Differ From Anxiety Attacks
To begin with, there is, in fact, a difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks.
Generally speaking, panic attacks are more intense than anxiety attacks, said Adina Mahalli (MCT), a certified mental health consultant for Maple Holistics.
Panic attacks are sudden onsets of fear accompanied by feelings of detachment, rapid heartbeat, increased sweating, chest tension, shaking, dizziness, and many more. They can occur at any time (sometimes without the obvious stressor) which makes them hard to predict and avoid, explains Dr. Nikola Djordjevic, MD, Co-Founder of MedAlertHelp.org.
Panic attacks can be very frightening, which is why a lot of people end up in the emergency room convinced that they are having a heart attack. It is hard to recognize them if they are happening for the first time. However, if they repeat a few times, people can identify them as panic and not some other serious health issue.
To look at panic attacks another way, Captain Tom Bunn LCSW, President, SOAR, Inc. says a person believes something feared is actually happening. Even if it is not happening, they are absolutely sure it is. The person believes they are in a life-threatening situation, and they are trapped; there is no way to escape.
Anxiety attacks share a lot of symptoms with panic attacks, with one significant difference: anxiety usually involves evidence of constant worry over a variety of things and is aggravated in the presence of stressors, Djordjevic clarifies.
People suffering from an anxiety attack experience a loss of concentration and restlessness, Mahalli says. They are often easily startled and feel extreme worry or distress that can persist for an extended period of time.
Bunn expounds further that a person fears something will happen, but at the same time, they know it is not happening now.
What to do in the moment
Fortunately, there are tons of tools people can use when they recognize they are having an anxiety or panic attack.
“When you’re having a panic or anxiety attack your breathing quickens and becomes shallow. This means that you should focus on your breathing in the moment,” Mahalli says. “Taking deep breaths and focusing on the breath itself helps. If you’re in an enclosed space, you might feel like there’s not enough air in the room so getting outside to breathe fresh air can help.”
An anxiety or panic attack can often cause you to dissociate. This means that you feel detached from your surroundings. In an attempt to bring yourself back to ‘reality’ use grounding techniques, Mahalli explains.
The following is advice from Bunn’s book, Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia, about how to ground yourself.
- Focus on an object in front of you. Maintain this focus throughout the time you spend grounding yourself.
- While focusing on that object, say to yourself “I see” and name an object in your peripheral vision. Repeat this for five total objects.
- Now, take the exercise to your hearing. Say “I hear” and name something you can hear, repeating for five total sounds (it’s okay to repeat some if you can’t come up with five).
- Time for sensations. Say “I feel” and name a tactile thing you can feel (note that this shouldn’t be internal, like your heart pounding). For example, you might say “I feel my calf rubbing against the sofa.”
You’ll do five rounds of this total: the first round as written above, then in the second round, you’ll repeat with four observations for each sense, then three, then two, then one. With this grounding exercise, your stress hormones will relax and the rest of your body will naturally follow suit.
According to Djordjevic, if you want to end a panic attack, you must do absolutely nothing.
“This is the main trick – the more you try to stop a panic attack, the stronger it gets. This is easier said than done, but it is the key to overcoming the attack. Simply do what you were doing before it started and wait for the symptoms to pass by. Do not try to control your actions or thoughts. If somebody tells you not to think about a black dog, what do you do? Think of a black dog.”
What to tell friends or family who want to help
“Talking to your loved ones can be very helpful. You should be open about your panic attacks and not let them limit your everyday activities,” Djordjevic says. “Some people report feeling relieved and calm once they confessed that they’ve had panic attacks to their loved ones.”
Mahalli agrees. “Attacks can often come out of nowhere or from unsuspecting triggers which means that it’s important to let those around you know when you’re experiencing symptoms. Having others around you aware of what you’re experiencing can create a safe space for you to deal with the symptoms.”
Anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be debilitating. But if you know what to do when they happen, or someone around you knows what to do, it can make the experience much less frightening.