skip to main content

Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks

What's the difference?

Panic and anxiety attacks may feel similar because of shared emotional and physical symptoms. Both can also be experienced at the same time. The differences are significant, however. 

Anxiety attacks are triggered by certain stressors and may build gradually.

Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly and abruptly and involve intense and often overwhelming fear.

Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks stem from anxiety, with symptoms of worry, distress and fear. In addition to specific phobia and social phobia, anxiety attacks may stem from a number of common psychiatric disorders:

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can happen to anyone, but having more than one may be a sign of panic disorder, a mental health condition characterized by sudden and repeated panic attacks. They can also be accompanied by challenging physical symptoms, like a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath or nausea. There are two kinds of panic attacks: 

1 – Unexpected, occurring without an obvious cause or clear external trigger

2 – Expected, cued by external stressors, like phobias. Some common triggers include:

    • Stressful job
    • Driving
    • Social situations
    • Phobias: agoraphobia (fear of crowded or open spaces), claustrophobia (fear of small spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights)
    • Reminders of traumatic experiences
    • Chronic pain or illness (heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma)
    • Drugs or alcohol withdrawal 
    • Caffeine
    • Medication, supplements
    • Thyroid problems

In summary: Understanding differences in experiencing an anxiety or panic attack:

Cause: Anxiety is typically related to something perceived as stressful or threatening. Panic attacks are not always cued by stressors.

Level of distress: Anxiety can be mild, moderate or severe. Panic attacks mostly involve severe, disruptive symptoms.

Fight-or-flight: During a panic attack, the body’s autonomous fight-or-flight response takes over. Physical symptoms are often more intense than symptoms of anxiety.

Speed of onset: While anxiety can build gradually, panic attacks usually come on abruptly.

Effect: Panic attacks typically trigger worries or fears related to having another attack, leading to avoidance of places or situations at risk for causing another one.

Shared risk factors

    • Experiencing or witnessing trauma, as a child or adult
    • Experiencing stressful life events (death of a loved one, divorce)
    • Experiencing ongoing stress over work, family conflict, financial or other significant worries
    • Living with a chronic or life-threatening health condition
    • Having other mental health conditions (depression, anxiety)
    • Having close family members with anxiety or panic disorder
    • Using excessive drugs, alcohol or caffeine

Clinicians cannot diagnose anxiety attacks, but they can diagnose:

    • Anxiety symptoms
    • Anxiety disorders
    • Panic attacks
    • Panic disorders


Stay in Touch