Anxiety and panic attacks, both distressing and overwhelming, are terms often used interchangeably. There is, however, a clear distinction between the two and how the body responds to each.
Asmita Sharma, a psychologist at Antaraal, told Huffpost India that an anxiety attack doesn’t have strong physiological responses—breathing getting shallow, heart rate going up—like a panic attack.
The fundamental difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack is the prevalence of a trigger, said Tanya Vasunia, a psychologist at Mpower. “A trigger is a clinical term used to classify a person, event or situation which activates or sets off feelings of anxiety.”
If you’re worried about experiencing either, experts tell us the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack and how to manage both.
Panic attacks are unpredictable
Panic attacks are more unpredictable and generally do not have a trigger, Vasunia said. “This makes the individual feel extremely vulnerable as they have no clear idea when an attack can take place or what triggers them,” she added.
A panic attack shows itself through intense physiological responses like increased heart rate, shortness of breath, shaking of hands and legs, and a terrifying fear like you’re dying, Sharma said. This, she said, “may be because the feeling of being in danger is set off within the person even though they might not be in any imminent danger”.
What is an anxiety attack?
Anxiety attacks happen when there is a trigger. “It is important to note that there can be multiple triggers of a single anxious thought spiral,” Vasunia said.
Sharma added that anxiety can be understood in two forms—‘realistic anxiety’ that stems from real and actual danger and ‘neurotic anxiety’ comes from internal conflicts within us between what we want and what we can’t have. Anxiety, she said, may be pointing towards an impending danger.
How to manage panic and anxiety attacks?
Sharma said the person should be brought to familiar and safe surroundings. “It’s important that people around don’t lose their calm as that can add to the sense of anxiety. Having a circle of people who are willing to listen by suspending judgement is very important to someone going through anxiety.”
"Try to ensure the individual remains hydrated, getting them a cold glass of water to sip is often a good way to ensure this," Vasunia suggested.
She also said that the person should be encouraged to engage in diaphragmatic breathing. This breathing involves the expansion and contraction of the stomach during inhalation and exhalation.
Experts agree that in the long run, the person should get in touch with a mental health professional. “If not managed correctly anxiety and panic attacks can lead to depressive symptoms, paranoia and substance abuse. It is imperative that the individual seeks professional help,” Vasunia said.
If you or someone you know needs help, mail firstname.lastname@example.org or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).