The difference between panic attacks and anxiety ?

In my clinical practice I am regularly asked, “ What is the difference between panic attacks and anxiety”

Lets start with anxiety

Anxiety can take many forms – social anxiety, phobias or general anxiety. General anxiety one of the most common anxieties people suffer with where you feel a constant sense of unease, you may find your mind on overdrive and have a constant stream of negative thoughts and worry. Other symptoms include

  • Muscle tension
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of libido
  • Irritability
  • Increased startle response
  • Increased heart rate / palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Poor short term memory

We all experience anxiety at some times in our lives for example when we are going for a new job, public speaking or moving house, it would be unusual not to experience some anxiety in these situations.

However, experiencing long term anxiety when there is no clear stressor is exhausting and can have significant impact on your physical health too so it should not be ignored, you do not need to live with constant anxiety it is treatable. If you are regularly experiencing 2-4 of the above symptoms when there is no clear stressor and it’s been going on for longer than a month it might be time to consider getting some support either see your general practitioner or arrange to see a CBT therapist for a psychological review. You may not require a full course of therapy some people have a few sessions to have a review and get some advice tailored to their needs which they can implement themselves.

Panic attacks

A panic attack on the other hand is a short intense burst of a number of symptoms also experienced in general anxiety but the attack is so intense people often feel that they’re going to die, lose control, faint or have a heart attack. Some of the symptoms include your heart racing, feeling like it could burst out of your chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling hot a wave of horror sweeping over you.

A panic attack is terrifying to go through and very distressing to witness. It’s not uncommon for people to call an ambulance in this situation.

Generally symptoms peak within 10 minutes and then they subside. However, some attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins. Following an attack, it is not unusual to feel stressed, worried, out-of-sorts, or “keyed up” the remainder of the day.

In addition to these terrifying attacks, people start worrying about having the next one. So there’s a lot of what’s called anticipatory anxiety.

Also, people who experience panic attacks may start avoiding places where they have previously had a panic attack in an attempt to avoid having further attacks. So if they had one in a shop for example, they may stop going to that shop again. The good news is even though this is a very common disorder; it is very treatable with cognitive behavioural therapy.

In a nutshell

The differences between panic and anxiety is best described in terms of the intensity of the symptoms and length of time the main symptoms occur. Both can have huge impacts on a persons quality of life and both are treatable, you do not need to live life with panic or anxiety. The most effective treatment recommended by the National Institute of Clinical Guidelines (NICE) is Cognitive behavioural therapy.

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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at