What Is the Difference Between Anxiety Attacks and Panic Attacks

by Melissa R.
anxiety attack symptoms

First of all, let’s get one thing straight right off the rip. Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are two entirely different things.

How can I say with such certainty? Because I suffer from them both.

I used to be the person (before I truly had a panic disorder) that would say I was having a panic attack without any regard to what it actually meant. I think that many people do. Something makes them feel anxious, and they blurt out that they are going to have a panic attack.

Now, I feel completely offended when I hear someone make that statement. I know, it’s ridiculous, but the utter fear that comes with a real panic attack cannot be explained, and frankly, is not really funny to someone with an anxiety and/or panic disorder.

How Is an Anxiety Attack Different From a Panic Attack?

Both have very similar symptoms, such as:

  • fear
  • a racing heart
  • chest pain (the kind that makes you feel the need to go to the emergency room)
  • trouble breathing
  • a feeling of not being able to swallow
  • sweating and hot flashes
  • numbness and tingling (this was one of my first symptoms of true anxiety)

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

  • extreme worry
  • restlessness (this can lead to a panic attack-especially in the middle of the night)
  • fear (this can also lead to a panic attack)

Panic Attack Symptoms

A panic attack has almost all of the same symptoms as an anxiety attack, but also has a few that are not present with anxiety. They are:

  • The fear of dying or losing control.

What does this mean? You may be thinking that we all have a fear of dying, and while that may be true, it is something completely different.

An example of this (one of my own uncontrollable fears (phobias)) is when I am on the highway. If I have to drive between concrete barriers, I feel as if I am trapped on the highway, and that there is no way out. I’m literally stuck with no exit ramp, and no way to get away from the situation. The intense worry many times will lead to a panic attack, particularly when I have to go more than one or two miles between these concrete walls, or if I know that there is no exit ramp in the next mile or so.

Another example would be something regarding my health, even if it has nothing to do with my health. I once tried a new face cream. I applied it, put my makeup on, and left the house to run some errands. My daughter was with me at the time who is aware of my severe anxiety. We drove about 3 miles, and I felt my face burning and felt like I couldn’t swallow. I asked my daughter if my face was red, and she calmly stated “no mom, you’re fine”. So what was the problem? I am terrified of being allergic to something (another phobia), and since I used a new face cream, it led to severe fear and anxiety, which led me to a panic attack.

  • Another symptom that is different from an anxiety attack is the fear of losing control.

My family has been dealing with a lot lately, and not long after learning of my fathers lung cancer diagnosis, we lost my husbands grandmother. On the way to the funeral, I felt the panic attack coming, like literally within seconds. I got so hot that I rolled my window all the way down (it’s pretty cold in Ohio in November). I told my husband “I think I need to go to the emergency room”.

Now, you may be thinking that if I know I have panic attacks, why can’t I just train my brain to know this? The answer is, sometimes I can, but most of the time the fear takes over, and I begin to feel like I’m losing control. On this particular day and during my panic attack, all I could think was that I would end up in a psychiatric hospital. There was absolutely no reason for me to go into panic mode (or to think that I would end up in a psychiatric hospital). In fact, there never is. It is an unnatural fear (or phobia) that I simply cannot control.

When I am not having an attack, I know how ridiculous this is, but it’s really hard to control your mind when anxiety and fear takes over.

What can you do to control anxiety and panic attacks?

There are natural things that you can do without getting a prescription from your doctor, and those include:

  • Limit your caffeine intake. I always keep this in mind when I know I will be driving, and I never drink anything with caffeine in the evening. My first panic attack that happened on the highway was after I drank almost an entire Starbucks Latte` within a short period of time during a road trip that my daughter and I took a few years back.
  • Limit your alcohol intake. This will enhance your anxiety symptoms.
  • If you smoke, STOP! Nicotine increases your blood pressure and your heart rate, and trust me, you don’t need your heart rate beating any faster than normal because it will make you feel like you are having an anxiety attack. Full disclosure: when you stop smoking, it will make you more anxious for the first couple weeks, but trust me, if you stay the course, you will notice an improvement with your anxiety symptoms.
  • Exercise – although this sounds cliche`, being more active does help with anxiety.
  • I know that driving is just a part of life, but I always try to figure out my route before I leave the house. There are certain highways that I know I should stay away from, particularly if there is construction going on.
  • Driving over bridges is a big fear for me. Honestly, I think this started when Hillary Clinton was running for president, and a large part of her campaign was making bridges stronger. This led me to an uncontrollable fear of being on a bridge and having it collapse. What I do now is make sure that I am breathing correctly. The reason for that is I finally realized that I would hold my breath while driving over a bridge, and this led to an almost instant panic attack.

Will I Have Panic Attacks Just Because I Have Anxiety?

The simple answer is no, although people who suffer from an anxiety disorder are more likely to suffer from panic attacks.

Learn what your triggers are and try to find ways to control them.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, most times I immediately begin feeling anxious. I know that if it goes on too long, I will have a panic attack. Sometimes I just get up. I’ll get up and do something to get my mind off of whatever it is that is worrying me, and when I feel a little better, I go back to bed. If I’m too tired, or sometimes I’m too anxious to leave my bed, I’ll turn on my white noise machine, and many times this does help.

I do have a prescription for my anxiety, but unfortunately, my anxiety won’t allow me to begin taking it.

I also have a prescription for insomnia, and I do sometimes take one of those before bed. Believe it or not, this usually helps my anxiety as well. I get a good night’s sleep and feel pretty good the next day.

You may be wondering why I am able to take the insomnia pill, but not the pill to help my anxiety.

There is an answer for that, and one that you likely will not understand, but it’s called anxiety for a reason.

The reason is this: I know that if I take the pill for anxiety, I have to take it every single day, and it is a long-term drug. One of my uncontrollable fears (yes, yet another phobia) is that I will become addicted to something. The pill for insomnia on the other hand is something that I only take when needed, or not at all, and my doctor encouraged me to take this drug particularly because it is not addictive, and of course, he is aware that addiction is one of my biggest fears. Even typing this right now makes me wonder what you are thinking as you read this post. You may be thinking that I am an addict in another sense, and because of this, I worry about addiction. Well, that is absolutely not true. The only thing in my life that I was addicted to was cigarettes, and if you haven’t read my quit smoking post, I quit on September 4, 2018 and never looked back (well, I looked but I never touched another cigarette)! I have never even tried a drug, let alone become addicted to it.

If you would like to read more about how my anxiety began, I wrote about it in this post.

If you think you are suffering from an anxiety or panic disorder, talk to your doctor about your symptoms, and he or she can help you decide what the best treatment plan is for your particular situation. Just because someone else does or does not take medication for their anxiety, does not mean that it will be the case for you. Everyone is different, and for this reason, you should take advantage of your doctor.

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