Am I having an anxiety attack or a panic attack?

2017-09-12T17:34:02+00:00 Anxiety tips|

panic attack

First up: If you think you’re having a panic attack right now, please stop reading. Tell someone, find a safe place, and get medical attention. I promise this post will be here when you’re feeling better. (And yes warrior, you WILL feel better.)



The other day, a friend was telling me about an anxiety attack she had on a long-haul flight.

“I started freaking out about being stuck in a confined cabin, thousands of feet up in the air, for hours on end. And suddenly I couldn’t breathe.”

I asked her how long it lasted.

“Well,” she said, “My boyfriend got me to take some deep breaths, and drink some water. I felt better after a few minutes.”

“Ah,” I replied. “In that case, I reckon you had a panic attack.”

The two are often confused.

So what is the difference between anxiety attacks and panic attacks?

Medically speaking, there’s no such thing as an anxiety attack. It isn’t listed in the mammoth manual that professionals use to diagnose mental disorders.

Instead, they use the term ‘anxiety’ to refer to different illnesses under the umbrella of ‘anxiety disorders’:

  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Phobias
  • Agoraphobia
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

But anxiety attacks are real

My boyfriend says unicorns aren’t real. But, dammit, they’re real to me!

Same with anxiety attacks. The boffins may say it isn’t an ‘official clinical term’, but it can be very real for many of us.

To understand it, let’s look at regular old anxiety. There it is, bubbling away under the surface. Some days you feel pretty cruisy, while other days your anxiety peaks – perhaps before a big work presentation or scary phone call. It’s always there, but it doesn’t always take over or impact your everyday life.

An anxiety ‘attack’ is different. It’s much more full on than everyday anxiety. It might stop you leaving the house for days on end. It could impact your work or relationships.

It’s anxiety, supercharged. And it can linger for a while – from a few minutes to a few weeks or even months.

So while a medical pro might not diagnose you with an anxiety attack (and it’s even possible to have an ‘attack’ without having an anxiety disorder), it’s an accepted term in mental health circles.

Panic attacks are sudden and swift

Panic attacks are much more serious. They pounce quickly, often out of nowhere. All of a sudden, you feel extreme fear and may even worry that you’re about to die.

Here’s what you might experience during a panic attack:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Choking sensation
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or sore tummy
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Trembling or shakes
  • Sweating
  • Fear of dying
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Feeling detached or ‘out of reality’

You may find the symptoms come on quickly, and pass within 10 or 15 minutes.

I’ve had my fair few panic attacks, and I know how frightening they can be. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a Panic Attack Plan ready to go.

Here’s my Panic Attack Plan:

  • Tell someone I’m having a panic attack, and ask for help. I also tell them not to panic with me! They should stay calm and in control.
  • Sit or lie down in a quiet, dark place.
  • Place a wet towel on my head or neck (or a blanket if I have chills).
  • Focus on deep breathing: count in for four, and out for four.
  • Repeat a mantra in my mind, like: “This will pass” or “I am calm”.
  • Ask the person I’m with to reassure me. They can say things like “You’re doing well, you can get through this, just focus on your breathing…”
  • Once the attack passes, have a nap or sit quietly. They can be really draining!

Can I have them at the same time?

You’ve gotta love anxiety. It sure knows how to have fun! Because it is actually possible to have a panic attack and an anxiety attack and the same time. Yay!

Let’s say you’re preparing to go to a party. You’re feeling super anxious about your outfit, who you’ll talk to – and what you’ll say to them. As you start thinking about what could go wrong, your anxiety peaks. This is an anxiety attack. You might then get to the party (or never even leave home) and have a panic attack when your brain perceives the party as potentially dangerous.

Double whammy. Awesome.

Can I prevent a panic attack?

As always, working with your anxiety is a very personal journey. It’s all about trying out different things and seeing what works for you.

It can also be a good idea to work with a therapist or mentor, so you can explore your anxiety in a safe, supportive space.

Some therapists might ask you to rank your panic attack triggers, and delve deeper into each one. They might role play, or even ask you to bring on a panic attack so you can learn how to manage it in a safe setting. (You should never do this on your own.)

So that’s anxiety and panic attacks in a nutshell. Do you have any other tips or different ways of keeping calm under pressure? I’d love to know! Just leave a comment below.

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