7 Ways A Subtle Panic Attack Differs From A Serious One

by Eva Taylor Grant
BDG Media, Inc.

Differentiating everyday anxiety, stress, anxiety disorders, and panic attacks can be quite confusing. One of the reasons these different issues all blend together is that they exist on a spectrum. Even serious panic attacks, which conjure images of severe distress, vary a lot between subtle and incredibly distressing.

One of the reasons that it's important to understand the varying symptoms of panic attacks is that panic attacks are incredibly personal. "Anxiety can look and feel slightly different for each of us, and the way we interpret signs of anxiety and panic can be influenced by our cultural experience, the way we were socialized, and our own personal expectations for ourselves," licensed clinical social worker Laura Federico, MS, tells Bustle. "[...] Noticing the signs of anxiety, or interpreting panic symptoms as they begin to increase, may be challenging if we aren't taught how to validate our emotional experiences." Therefore, it's important to understand and validate that even a subtle panic attack is worth taking care of.

"All panic attacks do not look alike," Dr. Caitlin Simpson, director of clinical operations at Footprints to Recovery, tells Bustle. "While symptoms may be similar, they are often experienced differently from person to person. There are multiple symptoms that can be experienced during a panic attack, and therefore some people may experience some symptoms while others do not." So even if your panic attack doesn't fit the criteria of being severe, you still deserve to recognize that there's an explanation for your symptoms.

Here are seven ways a subtle panic attack can differ from a more serious one, according to experts.


You May Be Able To Mask It

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If you're having a panic attack, but it's relatively mild, you may be able to mask it. While it may be distressful for you, others around you may not realize what's happening.

"During a subtle panic attack, for someone who knows what is happening, [they] might be able to mask it from others and work through it so that it quickly passes," Dr. Reshmi Saranga M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, tells Bustle. In more severe panic attacks, the physical symptoms can be harder to hide.


You May Be Able To Stop It Yourself

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In a more subtle panic attack, you may actually be able to have some control over the symptoms. In some cases, you may even be able to stop the panic attack in its tracks.

"[During a subtle panic attack,] the person might be able to take a quick break from what they are doing, calm down, and get it to pass." Dr. Saranga says. While those with more severe panic attacks may tap into some of this with skills learned in therapy, more subtle panic attacks can usually be stopped more easily.


You Can Continue Going About Your Business During The Panic Attack

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For those with severe panic attacks, the symptoms may stop them in their tracks. During more subtle panic attacks, however, coworkers and friends may not even realize they're happening, since the person having the panic attack can continue going about their everyday tasks.

"I have worked with individuals that have experienced minor panic attacks when shopping," licensed clinical social worker Ginger Poag, MSW, CEMDR, tells Bustle. "My clients have informed me that they could feel their heart begin to race, had an uneasy feeling and found it difficult to breathe. The individual experiencing this said that her symptoms decreased and eventually went away after a few minutes." This kind of subtle panic attack may not be noticeable to others, but definitely still counts.


You Might Not Be That Tired Afterwards

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One common symptom of panic attacks is the exhaustion that floods a person after the panic attack subsides. In more subtle panic attacks, however, this doesn't always happen.

"After a really intense panic attack, the sufferer may be left feeling exhausted," Dr. Saranga says. But in mild cases, you may be able to go about your day.


You May Feel Jittery

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The physiological effects of a panic attack are quite noticeable, whether or not your panic is subtle or more serious. One of these effects is the jitters — which happens as your heart rate and muscles react to the energy of the anxiety in your body.

"We can 'feel' jittery [when we have subtle panic attacks]," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Host of The Kurre and Klapow Show tells Bustle. "[With this you may] feel not so much stressed, but not quite OK." Not being able to put your finger on what you're feeling or why is another symptom of a panic attack.


You May Feel Fine Just Before It

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If you're having a subtle panic attack, it may feel like it is coming out of nowhere. This sensation may be because more serious panic attacks tend to occur when your body is already under significant stress.

"Things like hunger, anger, loneliness, feeling tired or stressed can make the panic sensations more difficult to control," Dr. Saranga says. If you're having a subtle panic attack, then, it may be because your system is feeling stronger in the moment.


Subtle Panic Attacks Can Be Severe Ones Subdued With Coping Skills

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Another factor that may lead you to have a more subtle one, rather than a full-blown panic attack, is having developed healthy coping mechanisms.

"There are many factors that determine how a panic attack plays out," Dr. Saranga says. "[... If] the sufferer is able to control and reduce his symptoms with relaxation tools and via other coping mechanisms [that can make it more subtle]." Therefore, just because someone has dealt with serious panic attacks before doesn't mean that milder ones aren't possible.

Panic is not one-dimensional. Whatever kind of stress or anxiety you experience, it is within your right to want to understand your symptoms better. Acknowledging that panic attacks can vary from person to person, and in different contexts, may help you identify the triggers you have and the help you need.