Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: What's the Difference and How to Cope
Updated: Oct 10
✓ Fact checked by: Dr. Glen M Doniger, PhD
A minute ago, you were fine and now your heart is racing and your body feels numb. You feel like you're on fire, yet you are trembling. And while it might seem that the symptoms you’re experiencing right now will last forever, they will in fact subside in a matter of minutes.
Why? Because although it sounds like something far more dangerous, this is how many people describe a panic attack as well as an anxiety attack. However, even though these two conditions are comparable, there are a few differences between the two which we're going to discuss below. We'll also touch on various strategies you can use to cope with an attack.
Panic Attack: When Fear Overwhelms
A panic attack is an intense and sudden feeling of fear, terror, or discomfort accompanied by mental and physical symptoms, such as:
Rapid heart rate
Trembling or shaking
Sense of impending danger
Feeling of detachment
Nausea, feeling lightheaded or unsteady
They usually last up to 30 minutes and may vary in intensity and duration, but they can also differ according to what prompted the attack.
There are expected panic attacks and unexpected panic attacks. Unexpected panic attacks occur suddenly and without an obvious cause, while expected panic attacks are anticipated when you’re subjected to specific panic triggers. For example, if you fear flying, you may have a panic attack when boarding a plane or at some time during the flight.
What Happens to the Brain During a Panic Attack?
Certain brain regions become hyperactive during a panic attack, such as the amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain, and parts of the midbrain that control a range of functions, including your experience of pain.
When you feel stressed, your sympathetic nervous system (a system that directs the body's rapid response to dangerous or stressful situations) typically fires up, releasing energy and preparing your body for action. Then the parasympathetic nervous system steps in (the nervous system that controls bodily functions when you’re resting), and the body then stabilizes so that it is in a calmer state.
But if the parasympathetic nervous system is somehow unable to do its job, you remain fired up and may experience the heightened arousal characteristic of a panic attack.
Anxiety Attack: Excessive Worry and Its Characteristics
While panic attacks come on suddenly, symptoms of anxiety follow a period of excessive worry about potential danger – whether real or perceived.
If the anticipation of danger builds up and the high amount of stress reaches a level where it becomes overwhelming, it may feel like an “attack”. The symptoms of anxiety may include the following:
Rapid heart rate
Inability to concentrate
Restlessness or difficulty falling/staying asleep
While some of the symptoms of anxiety are similar to those associated with panic attacks, they are generally less intense. Unlike a panic attack, the symptoms of anxiety may be persistent, lasting days, weeks, or even months.
What’s the Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Anxiety Attack?
Panic and anxiety attacks may feel similar because they share a lot of emotional and physical symptoms. The three most common symptoms for both types of attacks are rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, and chest pain.
However, while anxiety can be mild, panic attacks mainly involve severe, disruptive symptoms. They often occur out of the blue in contrast with anxiety attacks, which are typically related to something you perceive as threatening.
What to Do During an Attack?
Whether you’re experiencing a panic or an anxiety attack, try these techniques when you sense that nauseating, sudden feeling of anxiety.
Try a grounding technique: purposefully focus on things in your environment. For example, you can try to identify five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Doing this can help you get back in touch with the present moment.
Focus on your breath: Think about how the act of breathing feels in your nose, throat, or lungs. Count steadily from one to five on each inhale and each exhale.
Close your eyes: To reduce stimuli, close your eyes during a panic or anxiety attack. This can block out any extra stimuli and make it easier to focus on your breathing.
Use muscle relaxation techniques: Consciously relax one muscle at a time, starting with something simple, like your fingers, and move your way up through your body.
Count backward: Start counting backwards from 100 by 3. This will help you concentrate on counting and take the focus away from the anxious thoughts that are trying to sneak into your psyche.
Even though you may find these techniques helpful, they are quick fixes. The best long-term treatment involves a combination of therapies (cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, neurofeedback therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or medication), along with practicing mindfulness, learning deep breathing techniques, doing yoga, and exercising on a regular basis.
How to Help Someone Who’s Having a Panic Attack
It can be really difficult when someone you care about is experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, but there are things you can do to help. Here are some tips:
Remain calm: If they see that you're also panicking, it might make things worse.
Guide their breathing: Have them inhale slowly, completely filling their lungs, then exhale slowly, completely emptying their lungs. You can also do this with them so that they feel supported and less alone.
Remind them it'll be over soon: This will help them direct their focus to the fact that their panic attack is temporary and that they will be okay.
Use grounding techniques: Give them a lemon or sour candy and have them focus on the taste. You can also hand them something cold, like ice cubes, or have them run cold water over their wrists.
Ask them what you can do to help them: Even if they can’t answer you at the time, try to have a conversation after the attack to see what would be helpful next time so that you’re prepared if it happens again.
Train Your Brain to Fight Anxiety
Research has shown that neurofeedback therapy might help in increasing alpha brainwave activity in individuals that have panic disorder. Alpha brainwave activity is linked to a reduction in stress, anxiety, discomfort, and pain.
Neurofeedback is a non-invasive methodology that measures brainwave activity and can train the brain using visual and auditory cues. It’s based on a learning method called operant conditioning, which involves rewards and punishments for behavior.
Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence (whether negative or positive), with the goal of training the participant’s brain to regulate itself and help you understand when your brain is in the desired state. Eventually, your brain may be able to maintain a more balanced state even when it's not receiving feedback.
In one study, researchers assigned participants with diagnosed panic disorder to a 7-week neurofeedback program to increase their range of alpha waves and relieve abnormal anxiety.
The study showed an increase in participants' alpha brainwave activity. Also, scores on an anxiety questionnaire showed that the mental symptoms, physical symptoms, and fear were significantly lower.
These results are consistent with earlier findings showing that neurofeedback can relieve anxiety. Visit our research overview article for a comprehensive summary of neurofeedback research with supporting scientific references.
While there are similarities between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, these are two different conditions. Still, it’s important to remember that neither is a sign of weakness.
They're a natural physical response to a threat or stress, as your body tries to make sure you can take action. This reaction can be useful if you find yourself in danger or a crisis – but, most of the time, it's not very helpful. However, the unwanted symptoms can be treated so that soon, by harnessing the strength of your mind, you'll be able to make it work more in your favor!
Multiple Myndlift users report monthly about changes in their behavior and lifestyle. Get matched with a Myndlift Provider, either by finding one in your area or by enrolling in our Total Remote program.
Dr. Doniger is a cognitive neuroscientist with two decades of experience in the neurotech industry. He holds a PhD from New York University and has been involved in studies of visual perception, cognitive training, neurofeedback, and neurostimulation using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques in a variety of research and clinical settings.