Signs of panic attacks and anxiety attacks in women: similarities and differences

Updated 2 years ago on April 06, 2023

In the popular mind, there is a misconception that a panic attack and an anxiety attack are one and the same thing. After all, in both cases we are talking about a sharp deterioration in well-being associated with a whole set of psychological factors. However, it is very important to understand the difference between these two conditions, because if you confuse them and try to improve your well-being with inappropriate measures, it won't get any easier.

What is a panic attack

Panic attacks occur suddenly and are accompanied by intense, overwhelming fear. More often than not, there are also serious physical symptoms, such as palpitations, shortness of breath or nausea.

According to the medical classification, panic attacks can be unexpected and expected. Unexpected panic attacks occur for no obvious reason. Expected panic attacks are caused by external factors - most often phobias.

Panic attacks can happen to anyone, but they can also be indicative of panic disorder.

What is an anxiety attack

Anxiety is considered a sign of a range of mental disorders. Anxiety is usually associated with the anticipation of a stressful situation, experiences or critical events, and can manifest gradually, becoming more pronounced over time.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety can vary because there is still no clearly characterized diagnosis of "anxiety" in psychiatry. That is, one person may describe an "anxiety attack" and have symptoms that another person has never experienced.

Symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety attacks

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks can feel the same, and they share many of the same emotional and physical signs. In addition, you may experience anxiety and panic attacks at the same time. You may feel anxiety by worrying about a potentially stressful situation, such as an important presentation at work. When the situation develops, anxiety can lead to a panic attack.

How to distinguish between anxiety and panic attacks

It can often be difficult to determine whether a panic attack or an anxiety attack is happening to you. You can be guided by the following characteristics.

  • Anxiety is usually associated with something that is perceived as stressful or threatening. Panic attacks are not always caused by stressors; quite often they arise from nothing.
  • Anxiety can be mild, moderate, or severe. For example, anxiety occurs in the back of your mind when you are just going about your daily business. Panic attacks, on the other hand, are mostly associated with severe symptoms that knock you out for a while.
  • In a panic attack, the physical symptoms are more intense than in the case of anxiety.
  • Anxiety can build up gradually, and panic attacks usually occur suddenly.
  • Panic attacks cause anxiety or fear related to the repetition of the situation. This can affect your behavior. For example, you may avoid places or situations where you think a panic attack might occur.

Causes of panic and anxiety

Unexpected panic attacks have no obvious external triggers. Expected panic attacks and anxiety can be triggered by a number of triggers:

  • stressful job;
  • driving;
  • interaction with society;
  • phobias - agoraphobia (fear of crowded or open spaces), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) and acrophobia (fear of heights);
  • memories of traumatic experiences;
  • Chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome or asthma;
  • chronic pain;
  • refusal of alcohol or strong substances;
  • caffeine;
  • drugs and supplements;
  • thyroid problems.

Risk factors for panic attacks and anxiety attacks

Anxiety and panic attacks have similar risk factors. These include events such as:

  • experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event as a child or adult;
  • to survive a stressful event, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce;
  • Constant stress and anxiety - because of work responsibilities, family conflicts or financial problems;
  • a chronic or life-threatening illness;
  • disturbing character;
  • presence of a concomitant mental disorder, for example, depression;
  • Having close family members who also have anxiety or panic disorders;
  • the use of alcohol or psychoactive substances.

People who experience anxiety are at increased risk for panic attacks. However, having anxiety does not mean that you are prone to manifesting panic attacks.

How to diagnose anxiety or a panic attack

As we mentioned, doctors cannot diagnose anxiety attacks, but they can detect:

  • symptoms of anxiety;
  • anxiety disorders;
  • panic attacks;
  • panic disorder.

During the exam, the doctor will ask you about the symptoms you are experiencing and run tests to rule out other health conditions of a similar nature, such as heart disease or thyroid problems.

In order to make a diagnosis, the doctor may carry out:

  • medical examination;
  • take a blood test;
  • ECG (electrocardiogram);
  • psychological testing.

The specialist will also talk about possible ways to eliminate anxiety and panic attacks. Here are some techniques often used in therapy.

Psychological sessions

Talk therapy for anxiety and panic disorders often goes in conjunction with other treatments - to address related issues and visualize progress.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of counseling that helps you see things that bother you from a new perspective. The counselor will work with you to develop strategies for managing triggers when they arise.

Cognitive therapy - helps to identify, reformulate and neutralize the unhelpful thoughts that most often underlie the anxiety disorder.

Exposure therapy involves controlled exposure to situations that cause fear and anxiety, which will teach you to confront your fears in a new way.

Relaxation techniques are breathing exercises with which you can control your thoughts, relax and shift your attention to other topics.

Medications

Here are examples of the types of medications that are prescribed by specialists for panic and anxiety disorders:

  • antidepressants;
  • Beta-blockers, which help with some physical symptoms, such as palpitations;
  • sedatives that quickly suppress all symptoms.

It is worth understanding that all of these drugs can have side effects. Some of them are intended for long-term use, while others can only be taken in very short courses, as there is a high risk of addiction.

Home Ways

These techniques can be used when you feel an attack of any kind coming on. In this way, you can monitor your condition and protect yourself from a breakdown. But don't forget to discuss any changes in your well-being with a specialist, and to seek advice about the use of certain techniques.

If you're feeling anxious or having a panic attack, try using the following tips.

  • Take slow, deep breaths. When you feel your breathing quicken, focus your attention on each inhalation and exhalation. Feel your stomach fill with air as you breathe in. Exhale the air slowly, counting to four. Repeat until your breathing slows down.
  • Acknowledge and accept what you are experiencing right now. You've probably experienced anxiety and panic before, and you know how hard it is, but it's solvable! Remind yourself that the symptoms will pass, and everything will be okay.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a technique that helps you focus your thoughts on the present. It is increasingly being used today for the treatment of anxiety disorders.
  • Use relaxation techniques. If you're experiencing symptoms of anxiety or a panic attack, try doing something you find relaxing. Close your eyes and breathe, take a bath, or drink hot herbal tea.

What will help get rid of panic attacks and anxiety

These lifestyle changes can help you prevent anxiety and panic attacks, and reduce the severity of your attack symptoms.

  • Reduce and manage the sources of stress in your life.
  • Learn to identify and stop negative thoughts.
  • Do moderate physical activity on a regular basis.
  • Take up meditation or yoga.
  • Stick to a balanced diet.
  • Join support groups for people with anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Limit your consumption of alcohol and caffeine.

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