5 Differences Between Anxiety and Panic That You Need To Know

Hello Psych2Goers, we want to say thank you for all the support you’ve given us over the last few years. It’s truly amazing to know how big of a community we have built around mental health advocacy and awareness. We are proud of that and would love to continue to serve where possible. Today’s topic is on the difference between anxiety and panic disorder. If you are struggling to know the difference, then this topic is for you. 

Although it can be distracting and distressing, anxiety is a completely normal part of life. Everyone will experience bouts of anxiety at some point in their lives, usually surrounding a stressful event such as an exam or job interview, but only 18% of Americans are truly diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. According to Kathleen Roblyer, a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) and clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing, “Anxiety is a common experience. When the presentation of anxiety meets certain criteria, such as in generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), it becomes a disorder.” 

The same relationship distinguishes individual panic attacks from panic disorder, a chronic and distressing condition that affects 2-3% of adult Americans. Recurrent panic attacks can be considered panic disorder when the individual begins to live in fear of experiencing more attacks, thus interfering with everyday life and often triggering more attacks. 

Just as anxiety and GAD are used interchangeably despite being different experiences, panic disorder is often misunderstood as being severe anxiety. While the two are very related–panic disorder falls under the category of anxiety disorders— they are not interchangeable because of the distinct ways each affliction presents itself. Here are 5 of the most significant differences between anxiety and panic:

1. Anxiety Can Last Much Longer

Fortunately for those who suffer panic attacks, episodes are usually short-lived. While a lot of attacks end within ten minutes of beginning, according to the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, multiple “rolling” attacks can come and go for several hours at a time. Of course, the frequency of panic attacks varies from person to person, so no two experiences will necessarily be the same. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, is much more long-term. You can think of it more like a change in one’s everyday behavior rather than a sudden onset of severe distress. Symptoms can last for years, even with treatment, but just like with panic disorder, no two cases of anxiety are the same. 

2. Panic Is Specific While Anxiety Is More General

Kathleen Roblyer, PMHNP, of Texas A&M explains, “a panic attack is a specific event that occurs with defined characteristics and involves feelings of intense fear, danger or doom,” whereas “anxiety is a more general term, related to stress and worry.” Neither an anxiety or panic attack needs a specific trigger to cause it, but anxiety can also cause generalized stress and worry about future, past, and even hypothetical events. 

Panic attacks often occur out of the blue, without any triggers present. This doesn’t mean that triggers for panic don’t exist, but the lack of causality can make these seemingly random attacks more distressing. Anxiety attacks, though, typically occur in relation to a specific event, situation, or thought that triggers the unwanted response, while anxiety disorder can disrupt a person’s life even when triggers are not present (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). 

3. They Have Different Symptoms

Although both disorders are based in a severe sense of worry or fear, they express themselves in different ways. According to Dr. Ted Wander, Inpatient Psychiatry Medical Director at Intermountain LDS Hospital, the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) include more generalized emotional symptoms such as irritability, feelings of worry or dread, trouble concentrating, and feeling tense or jumpy. 

The symptoms of panic attacks, on the other hand, are more severe and come on more abruptly than symptoms of GAD. They can include sweating, shaking, chest pain, a rapid heart rate, and even numbness or sensations of choking. 

For a more thorough list of symptoms and information about panic and anxiety, check out Dr. Wander’s article.

4. Panic Attacks Are More Sudden

Symptoms of anxiety attacks tend to show themselves gradually when exposed to a trigger. When anxiety disorder becomes long-term, though, symptoms can become so constant that it can be hard to tell when they begin and end. Anxiety may also begin to cause more intrusive symptoms that occur more frequently when stressors are not actually present; a psychologist would likely consider this to be a symptom of an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 

Panic attacks are much more distinct. Symptoms come on suddenly and noticeably, rather than building up gradually over time. The acute nature of panic symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath have led many to mistake their symptoms for a heart attack. Luckily, panic attacks are not life-threatening and will often resolve on its own in a fairly short amount of time.

5. Panic Attacks Can Leave You Feeling Unreal & Out Of Control

For many, the scariest symptoms of a panic attack aren’t the physical sensations, but the mental unrest. In an article for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, writer Jenny Marie recounts her own personal experiences with these symptoms. She describes derealization as “feeling withdrawn from one’s surroundings, as if the world isn’t real”. Depersonalization, on the other hand, is closer to an out-of-body experience, “in which a person feels separated from his own self”. Jenny didn’t learn that this disorientation was also part of panic disorder until after she had worked through her symptoms, but once she learned that her experiences were not as unusual as they felt, she began to have the peace of mind that allowed her to share her experiences in this article and throughout her life. 


To summarize, the main difference between anxiety and panic disorder are: anxiety last longer, panic is specific while anxiety is more general, panic and anxiety have different symptoms with anxiety involving symptoms like irritability, while panic attacks can include shaking, chest pain, and increased heart rate even numbness, and lastly, panic attacks are more sudden. 

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