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Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack: What's the Difference?

Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack What's the Difference

Imagine sitting in a meeting when suddenly, your heart starts pounding, your palms gets sweaty, and you feel an overwhelming sense of doom. Is it a panic attack or an anxiety attack? 

Many people experience these symptoms and struggle to understand what’s happening to them. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, anxiety disorders affect around 3.3 million Australians, making it crucial to understand the differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks.

Understanding these differences not only helps in managing the symptoms more effectively but also in seeking appropriate treatment. Let’s look at the definitions, symptoms, causes, differences, and treatment options for panic attacks and anxiety attacks, providing you with a comprehensive guide to handling these challenging experiences.

Understanding Panic Attacks


A panic attack is a sudden, intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes. In individuals susceptible to panic attacks, this response can become overactive. When the brain perceives a threat, even if it’s not real, it triggers a cascade of physiological reactions: adrenaline is released, heart rate increases, and breathing quickens.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), panic attacks are characterised by a surge of intense fear or discomfort that peaks within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms.

Physical Symptoms of Panic Attacks

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or discomfort

Psychological Symptoms of Panic Attacks

  • Intense fear or terror
  • Feelings of detachment from reality (derealisation)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy.”
  • Fear of dying

Duration and Onset

Panic attacks typically last between 5 to 20 minutes, though some symptoms may persist for an hour. They usually occur suddenly and without warning, often without any apparent trigger.

Causes and Triggers

Panic attacks can be triggered by a variety of factors, often unique to each individual.

Environmental Factors: such as a history of abuse or prolonged exposure to stressful situations, significantly contribute to the onset of panic attacks. Individuals who have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse often carry deep-seated anxiety and fear, which can manifest as panic attacks. Similarly, living in a chronically stressful environment—whether due to work pressure, financial instability, or an unstable home life—can heighten the body’s stress response, making panic attacks more likely.

The usage or withdrawal from substances like alcohol or drugs can also be a major trigger for panic attacks. Substances such as alcohol, caffeine, and illicit drugs can alter brain chemistry and increase anxiety levels. For instance, alcohol is a depressant that can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to heightened anxiety and panic attacks during withdrawal. Similarly, stimulants like caffeine can provoke anxiety symptoms.

Drug withdrawal can create a severe imbalance in the brain’s chemical environment, leading to heightened anxiety and the potential for panic attacks. Understanding these triggers is essential for managing and reducing the frequency of panic attacks.

Stress: Significant life stressors can be potent triggers for panic attacks. Events such as losing a job, going through a divorce, or experiencing trauma create an environment of heightened stress and anxiety. Stress affects the body’s hormonal balance, particularly the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which can lead to an increased likelihood of panic attacks.

Genetics: A genetic predisposition can also contribute to the likelihood of experiencing panic attacks. Research indicates that panic disorder tends to run in families, suggesting a hereditary component. If a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, has experienced panic attacks or panic disorder, an individual’s risk may be higher. 

Medical Conditions: Certain medical conditions can mimic or trigger panic attack symptoms. Hyperthyroidism, for instance, causes an overproduction of thyroid hormones, leading to symptoms like rapid heart rate and anxiety, which can precipitate panic attacks. Similarly, heart arrhythmias, which involve irregular heartbeats, can produce sensations of palpitations and chest pain that resemble panic attack symptoms. 

Impact of Panic Attacks

  • Significant distress and disruption to daily activities
  • Increased risk of developing agoraphobia
  • Interference with personal and professional relationships
  • Physical health issues, including increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Negative impact on overall quality of life and mental well-being
  • Development of avoidance behaviours, such as avoiding places where previous attacks occurred

Understanding Anxiety Attacks


An anxiety attack, although not a formally recognised term in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), refers to a period of intense anxiety and psychological distress. This term is often used to describe where individuals experience overwhelming worry and fear, often in response to specific stressors or triggers.

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks

  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Increased heart rate

Psychological Symptoms of Anxiety Attacks

  • Fear
  • Restlessness
  • Persistent worry
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • A feeling of impending doom

Duration and Onset

Anxiety attacks often have a gradual onset, building up over time in response to stressors. The duration can vary widely, from several minutes to hours or even days, depending on the severity of the anxiety.

Causes and Triggers of Anxiety Attack

Chronic Stress: Prolonged exposure to stressful situations can lead to an accumulation of anxiety over time. This stress can stem from various aspects of life, such as work-related pressures, interpersonal conflicts, or financial challenges.

Traumatic Events: Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events, such as accidents, natural disasters, or violence, can have a lasting impact on an individual’s mental health. These past traumatic experiences can cause persistent anxiety and may trigger anxiety attacks when specific memories or reminders of the trauma resurface.

Anxiety Disorders: Individuals diagnosed with anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), are more prone to experiencing anxiety attacks. These disorders involve chronic anxiety and worry, which can escalate into intense fear or panic.

Thought Patterns: Negative thinking patterns and beliefs, such as catastrophising (expecting the worst possible outcome), overgeneralising (seeing a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat), and excessive self-criticism, can significantly contribute to anxiety.

Impact of Anxiety Attack

  • Impaired concentration and decision-making abilities
  • Strained relationships due to increased irritability and withdrawal
  • Decreased work or academic performance
  • Avoidance of social situations and potential isolation
  • Heightened sensitivity to stress and reduced overall quality of life
  • Physical health issues like insomnia, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems

Differences Between Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack

1. Symptoms Comparison

While both panic and anxiety attacks share some symptoms, panic attacks typically involve more intense physical symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath. In contrast, anxiety attacks are characterised by ongoing, persistent worry and tension.

2. Onset and Duration

Panic attacks have a sudden and acute onset, often peaking within minutes. In contrast, anxiety attacks build up gradually and can last much longer.

3. Triggers and Causes

Panic attacks often occur without a clear trigger, while anxiety attacks are usually linked to specific stressors or ongoing anxiety issues.

4. Intensity and Frequency

The intensity of panic attacks is generally higher, with more severe symptoms and a more abrupt onset. Anxiety attacks are less intense and can be more persistent and long-lasting.

Treatment and Management

Seeking professional help is crucial for both panic and anxiety attacks because it allows individuals to receive specialised care for their specific needs. Therapists can provide comprehensive treatment plans.

Therapeutic Approaches

When it comes to addressing panic attacks and anxiety attacks, various therapeutic approaches can provide relief. Each method has its unique principles and techniques tailored to different needs. Compared to talk therapies, these methods can be very effective, often reducing anxiety significantly in just 2-5 sessions.

Clinical Hypnotherapy:
As anxiety is a subconscious reaction, accessing the subconscious level to make changes can help alter negative thought patterns and reduce anxiety symptoms effectively.

A psychosensory technique that uses soothing touch to create a sense of safety and calm. Havening aims to rewire the brain’s response to stress and alleviate anxiety.

Family Constellation:
Explores family dynamics and unresolved generational issues to uncover root causes of anxiety. This approach promotes healing through understanding and resolving deep-seated family patterns.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): 

Effective for both panic and anxiety attacks, CBT helps you to identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours.

Benefits of Using Hypnotherapy to Treat Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Hypnotherapy can provide a deeply relaxing state, allowing you to access your subconscious mind to address and alleviate the root causes of your anxiety.

  • Reduces anxiety and stress levels
  • Promotes deep relaxation and calmness
  • Improves sleep quality and reduces insomnia
  • It helps uncover and address the root causes of anxiety
  • Supports positive behavioural changes
  • Strengthens focus and concentration
  • Encourages positive thinking and self-esteem
  • Reduces frequency and intensity of panic attacks

Self-Help Strategies

Mindfulness and Meditation: Practices that can reduce stress and improve overall mental health.

Lifestyle Changes: Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep are necessary in managing anxiety and panic symptoms.


Understanding the differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks is crucial in managing these conditions effectively. You can take proactive steps towards improving your mental health by recognising the symptoms, triggers, and appropriate treatment options.

Make It Happen Hypnotherapy (MIHH) specialises in treating panic and anxiety attacks. Book a FREE Consultation to learn more about how we can help you. 

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