The Difference Between Anxiety And Panic Attacks — And How To Manage Them

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Anxiety manifests in different ways depending on the person. While some people may become isolated and depressed, others may get panic or anxiety attacks. But what’s the difference between anxiety and panic attacks? Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, says that people sometimes confuse the two since they are often used interchangeably.

“Technically, an anxiety attack is a more general term used to describe an onset of severe stress or feelings of anxiousness — they tend to be triggered by certain settings or circumstances,” Dr. Klapow tells Bustle. “In contrast, a panic attack is more severe, more intense, and has a sudden onset — they seem to come out of nowhere with very little ramp-up time,” he says. He adds that, in some cases, people feel chest pain, like the world is crashing in on them, and, often, they may feel as if they are going to die.

“Anxiety is worry: Ruminating over things that you don’t have power over, things you think you did wrong, and what will happen in the future,” Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka “Dr. Romance”), psychotherapist and author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, tells Bustle. “Meanwhile, panic attacks are physical — a rapid heartbeat, panting, and dizziness — and they happen when unexpressed feelings become too powerful to suppress.” So, once you understand the difference between the two, there are different ways you can treat and manage them.

The Symptoms Of Anxiety Attacks

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As far as anxiety and anxiety attacks are concerned, they usually stem from thoughts of a current or future event that have a sense of fear associated with them, Carolyn Cole, licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. “Some examples may be worrying about money, worrying about how others view you, and worrying what it means if your partner doesn’t text you back right away,” she says. “Also, anxiety gradually builds and cause problems in relationships and at work or school.”

Cole says that symptoms of anxiety attacks include headaches, irritability, muscle tension, trouble sleeping, and feeling “on edge” or a sensation of butterflies in your stomach. “The worrying is excessive and feels hard to control,” she says.

How To Manage Anxiety Attacks

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Dr. Klapow says that the key to managing your anxiety — and a potential anxiety attack — is to keep your anxiety levels in check throughout the day. “This is not to say you have to be calm all day, but instead of holding the anxiety in, and having it build and build, diffuse it throughout the day,” he says. “I regularly recommend to my clients that at least every hour, take a ‘breathing bathroom break.’ Simply get up, go to the restroom, and, on the way, take slow, deep breaths.”

Dr. Klapow says that one of the challenges with anxiety is that you may tend to breathe more shallow breaths, which means taking in less oxygen — and, as a result, you’ll feel more anxious. “Breathing slowly and fully sounds minor, but it literally can help your physiology reset to keep anxiety in check,” he says. Practicing meditation or progressive muscle relaxation will also help you manage your physiological responses to stress, he says.

If you are already mid-anxiety attack, Dr. Klapow says you only need a few minutes to recover. “Check your breathing and your heart rate,” he says. “Then, breathe slowly and completely, and talk yourself down.” He says that practicing self-talk is critical when you feel anxious — for instance, say statements like “Calm, cool, relax” as you breathe to help you return your heart rate and blood pressure to a more normal state, as well as release muscle tension. “Once you have returned to baseline, keep the self-talk up — it will keep you calm,” Dr. Klapow says. “Also, remind yourself that you are anxious, that you will be OK, and that the emotions you are feeling are your anxiety and not the situation — i.e., ‘This is anxiety talking, not reality.’”

One more way to manage an anxiety attack is by rearranging your environment. “To help calm you down, reduce the amount of work you try to take on, take a time-out, and escape the situation,” Dr. Klapow says. “The more you can create an environment that is not anxiety-provoking, the easier it is to keep the anxiety under control.” He suggests doing something like leaving the situation, taking a walk, listening to music, or exercising.

However, if you’re suffering from panic attacks, not anxiety attacks, you can try the below to manage them.

The Symptoms Of Panic Attacks

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Cole says that panic attacks are more heightened and intense, and the duration is shorter than anxiety. “Many people experiencing panic attacks end up in emergency rooms because they feel like they are having a heart attack due to feeling like their heart is racing, having chest pain, trouble breathing, and/or feeling like they are out of control,” she says. They may also have numbness or tingling in their extremities. She says an example of a panic attack is one that’s associated with a fear, such as flying, where unexpected panic attacks seem to come out of nowhere.

How To Manage Panic Attacks

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Dr. Klapow says that, since they come on suddenly, panic attacks are challenging to prevent. But, luckily, there are coping strategies you can practice. He says to remind yourself that: 1) You are not going to die; 2) The panic attack WILL end; and 3) Work to calm yourself down (which will help reduce the severity and duration of the panic attack) — go to a quiet place, slow down your breathing, practice self-talk such as, “I’m going to be OK, this is going to pass, this is just a panic attack.”

Dr. Klapow says that you can reduce the intensity and length of a panic attack once you slow your physiological response down — such as slowing down your breathing, reducing your heart rate, and getting more oxygen to your body. He adds that becoming familiar with situational triggers, like stressful situations, will also help, as can certain meditations.

In any case, it’s important to remember that you can help alleviate the symptoms of both an anxiety and a panic attack. And now that you know the difference between anxiety and panic attacks, you can better manage them if they occur.