How Are Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks Different?

Am I Experiencing An Anxiety Or Panic Attack? Tips To Cope.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder have common symptoms, like excessive worry, but they are separate and distinct mental health conditions. If you or someone you love is affected by persistent worry, it is important to understand the difference between the two and to seek help.

Identifying and Treating Anxiety Attacks & Panic Attacks

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Virtually everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. People with GAD, however, have the persistent worry that is out of proportion to the anticipated life events. Their anxiety is extreme to the point that it is debilitating and interferes with their ability to manage daily living tasks. The diagnosis of GAD may be made if the person has experienced excessive worry in the majority of days over a six month period, their anxious thoughts are difficult to control and they experience at least three of these symptoms:

  • Feeling on edge or restless
  • Irritability
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Trouble concentrating or losing their train of thought
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or sleep that is not restful
  • Muscle tension that produces aches or soreness, twitching, trembling or shaking
  • Other physical symptoms including nausea, sweating, headaches, diarrhea, exaggerated startle reflex, and irritable bowel syndrome

In addition, a diagnosis of GAD is considered when the anxiety is not related to another mental health condition such as panic attacks, substance abuse, PTSD, social phobia or a medical condition.

Panic Disorder

Intense fear is normal when faced with immediate danger or a perceived threat. With panic disorder, however, a person has abrupt periods of intense fear or discomfort that produce cognitive and physical symptoms in the absence of any danger. The condition causes a person to worry continually about the occurrence of another panic attack and to change their behavior because of that possibility.

Panic attacks peak quickly and can be triggered by situations or objects that the person fears or the attacks can occur seemingly without cause.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath or the feeling of smothering or choking
  • Fear of dying
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Heat sensations or chills
  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”

For a diagnosis of panic disorder, these symptoms may not be caused by drugs, alcohol, medication or another physical or mental disorder.

Treating Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder

Both GAD and panic disorder can be successfully treated. For GAD, treatment may include:

  • Psychotherapy (or talk therapy)
  • Medications including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, and sedatives
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Eliminating the use of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine
  • Getting adequate sleep

Treatment for panic disorder includes:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Medications including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) or benzodiazepines
  • Eliminating the use of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Participating in a support group

The sooner a treatment plan is implemented and lifestyle changes are made, the sooner a person can start enjoying better mental and emotional health and a happier and more productive life.

Find a Behavioral Health Provider at Baptist Health.

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