Anxiety and panic attacks have certain similarities, but they are two different conditions. How can you tell which is which? The main differences between them are the way they present themselves at their onset and the intensity, severity, and duration of the symptoms.
The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describes a panic attack as “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” It does not, however, list or include a definition for what is commonly referred to as an anxiety attack.
Although “anxiety attack” is not an acknowledged clinical term, it is widely used to describe anxious responses ranging from an intense fear of an upcoming event, such as public speaking, to overwhelming feelings of dread that could easily fit the criteria for a panic attack diagnosis.
The ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) has estimated that 6.8 million adults in the United States experience severe anxiety. That’s 3.1 percent of the population. Six million (two percent) suffer from panic attacks.
Key differences between anxiety and panic attacks
- Onset. An anxiety attack tends to start slowly and build up over time. For instance, it might begin as a normal response to a stressful situation. You feel apprehensive about something like an upsetting medical diagnosis, losing your job, or being unable to pay the bills. Then, as you start imagining negative scenarios and anticipating the worst, the feelings escalate, eventually interfering with your ability to go about your everyday life and do the things you used to enjoy. On the other hand, the onset of a panic attack is sudden and acute.
- Duration. Panic attacks usually end quickly, lasting an average of ten minutes. The symptoms of severe anxiety, however, if not dealt with, may last a long time.
- Triggers. Anxiety attacks can be triggered by a variety of things such as stress, phobias, or the anticipation of a real or perceived threat. For instance, getting trapped in an elevator, if you have a fear of closed places. Or the dread of something bad happening to you if you have to walk down a dark, isolated street by yourself.
Panic attacks don’t usually have triggers, although sometimes they can be precipitated by reminders of a past traumatic event. Rather, they tend to come on suddenly, out of the blue, without warning or provocation. People experiencing a panic attack – especially for the first time – often end up in the Emergency Room because they think they’re having a heart attack. Panic attacks can also become triggers of anxiety by creating a fear of having another attack.
- Symptoms. Following is a side-by-side comparison of the most common symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks.
Anxiety Panic Attacks
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling physically drained
- Stomach issues
- Easily startled
- Muscle tension
- Dry mouth
- Feelings of terror and impending doom
- Fear of passing out, dying, or going crazy
- Pounding heart, chest pain
- Trouble breathing
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Shaking, trembling
- Chills or sweating
- Feeling of choking
- Numbness or tingling of fingers or toes
The Bible has much to say about anxiety but does not mention panic attacks as such. Nevertheless, in Psalm 55, David gives a good description of what a panic attack feels like, as well as the best way to respond.
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. But I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.– Psalm 55:4-5, 16-17
Life in this world is full of uncertainty, and the unknown can be scary. God understands our frail natures, so prone to fear. That is why His Word is full of promises and reassurances of His love and provision. God does not condemn us for our anxieties. He wants us to bring them to Him in prayer, to lean on Him, and trust Him.
Proverbs 12:25 tells us that worry weighs a person down, whereas an encouraging word cheers a person up. Your Bible is full of such encouraging, hope-filled words. Following are just a few to get you started.
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. – Psalm 103:13-14
Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” – Isaiah 35:4
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41:10
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. – Isaiah 43:2
…casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. – 1 Peter 5:7
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
“Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. – Matthew 6:25-34
Christian counseling for anxiety and panic attacks
Christian counseling involves a combination of Biblical principles and clinical intervention. If you have questions or would like to set up an appointment, please contact me or one of the other faith-based counselors in our online counselor directory today.
We would be happy to meet with you to discuss practical techniques for dealing with anxiety and panic attacks, as well as help you manage the challenges you face, and support and encourage you along the way.
Facts and Statistics (September 19, 2021). Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Joseph Rauch (November 15, 2019). What’s the Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and Panic Attack?, Talkspace.com/blog/anxiety-attack-vs-panic-attack-one/.
Madeline R. Vann, MPH (August 3, 2018). What It’s Like to Have an Anxiety or Panic Attack, EverydayHealth.com.
Mayo Foundation for Medical Educational Research (MFMER), (1998-2020a). Anxiety Disorders, Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961.
Mayo Foundation for Medical Educational Research (MFMER), (1998-2020b). Panic attacks and panic disorders. Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021.
Sheryl Ankrom, MS, LCPC (December 2, 2021). Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks, verywellmind.com
“Stressed”, Courtesy of RODNAE Productions, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Freaking Out”, Courtesy of Keira Burton, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Lakeside Bench”, Courtesy of Alesia Kozik, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Colorful Boats”, Courtesy of Cristina Şopandă,Pexels.com, CC0 License