Many anxiety sufferers find that it’s helpful to understand the difference between anxiety and panic attacks. An episode of anxiety could be mistaken for a panic attack, and a panic attack could be mistaken for anxiety unless you’re aware of some of the key differences.
You may have heard the terms “anxiety attack”, “anxiety episode”, and “panic attack” as if they were all the same thing, as these terms are often used interchangeably. However, the difference between anxiety and panic attacks is quite significant for most people.
Perhaps you or your loved one has an anxiety disorder, or live stressful lifestyles that aren’t necessarily conducive to good mental health. Perhaps you have anxiety often, or you’re frequently feeling dysregulated, and you just want to be able to explain to others what you’re going through.
Once you understand the difference between anxiety and panic attacks, you’ll know whether you or a loved one is having an episode of anxiety or a panic attack, and you’ll know how to treat them both. You can also start to learn what triggers anxiety attacks vs panic attacks, and recognize the mental, emotional and physical symptoms of each.
What is an Anxiety Attack?
Feeling stressed or feeling anxious is different from having an anxiety attack. Anxiety attacks are generally triggered by specific situations. In this aspect, they are easier to deal with because you know when to expect one. You can then either avoid the situation or have a contingency plan in place to manage it.
Unfortunately, an anxiety attack’s symptoms can linger over days, weeks or even months. They do not come and go but instead build up gradually. When your anticipation of an unwanted situation builds up (which may or may not include the problem actually happening), and you just can’t take it anymore, it may feel like a sudden “attack”.
In my case, I used to have anxiety attacks around the subject of a terminal illness. I was once surrounded by people in the palliative care space, who did not respect me when I said “I don’t want to talk about this” because what they were saying would bring up painful memories. They would also dismiss me whenever I spoke about antiaging and life extension, even though I was (and am) clearly passionate about it. The repeated invalidation and dismissal of my experiences would lead to anxiety attacks, but I would manage or prevent them by leaving the room. Now, I no longer have them as I don’t have to interact with those who created the situation.
The Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks
In many ways, panic attacks are more challenging to manage and regulate than anxiety attacks. Panic attacks don’t always have an identifiable trigger, where your body and mind send “danger signals” before things get out of hand. Instead, you suffer suddenly from an intense feeling of fear, terror or other uncomfortable emotion. A panic attack comes on suddenly, with extreme emotion bursting out of nowhere.
However, the “upside” to panic attacks is that they generally peak after 10 minutes and then subside. You don’t suffer from lingering effects for days on end, and you may even feel like your normal self again within an hour or two.
Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, can last several hours.
How To Pre-Emptively Calm Your Mind
Prevention is always best when it comes to anxiety and panic attacks. In the case of anxiety attacks, it is sometimes possible to avoid situations where you know an attack will be triggered. Just like in my experience, you may be able to prevent an anxiety attack by changing who you associate with. It may also be possible and necessary to change your job, daily routine, or even where you live.
If you can’t simply get away from the “danger” situation, it could be helpful for you to start by recording a stress diary, similar to a food diary. You may uncover some unknown situational triggers; link physical health issues to stress and anxiety, or find out how much stress you can handle before it all boils over into an anxiety or panic attack. On the other hand, you may find that meditation, certain types of exercise, or mindfulness activities increase the amount of stress you can handle. These pieces of information can altogether help you construct a “stress budget”. It won’t take just one day, but maybe very useful if you have a stressful career or lifestyle and need to manage, but not eliminate, your major stressors.
There are also ways to balance your brain chemistry, so you can restore your healthy levels of neurotransmitters and support overall brain function. They include:
You may benefit from supplementation with nutrients such as magnesium, vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin C, which are required for neurotransmitter production. For example, magnesium and vitamin B6 contribute to the production of GABA, a relaxing neurotransmitter. Vitamins B6, B12 and folate keep the methylation cycle going, which prevents homocysteine buildup. Not only is homocysteine inflammatory, but supporting its natural cycle allows for the production of serotonin and dopamine. These lift mood and promote motivation and focus, respectively.
Taking cannabidiol (CBD)-rich hemp oil may help to relieve anxiety too. Multiple clinical trials show that CBD can soothe anxiety in situations such as public speaking, or anxiety caused by using THC. CBD oil works by calming the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is responsible for stress hormone production. It also disrupts connections to the “fear centre” of the brain, the amygdala.
Adaptogens are a class of herbal medicines that support our resilience to physical and mental stresses. For example, ashwagandha has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms and levels of cortisol over 60 days in people with anxiety. This may help to reduce your level of perceived stress, so you don’t go over your daily stress budget. Rhodiola can both lower cortisol and slow the breakdown of neurotransmitters. When your serotonin and dopamine stick around longer, you can enjoy an improved mood and an increased ability to deal with whatever life throws at you. Siberian ginseng may have the added benefit of protecting your immune cells from the damage caused by excess cortisol. It may improve your turnover of dopamine and noradrenaline levels in the brain too.
How a CircleDNA Test Can Help You Manage Your Stress
Your CircleDNA test may help you uncover what your brain and body need to avoid anxiety or panic. The nutrition reports from CircleDNA, for example, tell you whether your needs for a range of essential nutrients are in the normal range or elevated needs range. Folate, vitamins B6 and B12, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids are some of the nutrients included. Certain nutritional deficiencies can exacerbate mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
CircleDNA also offers stress and sleep reports based on your genetics, to help you get a little more insight. This includes your tendencies towards neuroticism and stress. You can also find your predispositions to stress tolerance, as well as your genetic sleep tendencies. If you have a lower or moderate level of stress tolerance, you may benefit from planning ahead to make sure you don’t go over your stress “budget”. As a lack of sleep can throw off your ability to manage emotions and thought processes, it’s important to know whether or not you can make it as a night owl.
Anxiety and Panic Attacks: The Bottom Line
It’s understandable if you’ve been confused by the difference between anxiety and panic attacks. While anxiety attacks are situational, panic attacks seem to often appear for no reason, and panic attacks come and go more suddenly. Thankfully, there are ways to manage your risk of anxiety and panic attacks or prevent them by treating the underlying causes. This includes learning your triggers, learning how to self regulate your nervous system, and going to counselling to process your emotions.