Mental Health Education

Understanding Anxiety vs. Panic Attacks: Symptoms and Coping Strategies

Alexis Younes
September 14, 2023
September 14, 2023
min read

Have you ever experienced so much anxiety or worry that your body starts to betray you? You start to feel a heightened sense of emotions, physical sensations, and spiraling thoughts that feel like they may never go away. On the brightside, they always do. I’ve heard people use anxiety attacks and panic attacks interchangeably when describing what they experience despite the significant difference between the two. They can be quite confusing and you may not know that there are differences, but I’m here to demystify and break them both down for you. 

  1. An anxiety attack happens because of something that triggers you whereas a panic attack has no clear trigger or reason as to why it occurs. 
  2. Anxiety attacks have a gradual, slow, sometimes ongoing build up whereas a panic attack goes from 0-100 real quick.
  3. Anxiety attacks last longer than a panic attack does, but they both always end. Panic attacks can last a few minutes to about an hour whereas anxiety can last for minutes, days, weeks, or even months.
  4. Anxiety’s symptoms may feel less intense as panic attack symptoms. Both share similar symptoms such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, and chest pain. 
  5. The symptoms you experience with panic attacks feel like life or death, like you are really going through it. You may not feel like yourself and may feel disconnected from reality or the world around you. You also might experience a choking sensation or feeling smothered.
  6. With anxiety attacks, you may realize you are distracted easily, your head is empty, and you’re feeling edgy. Do you ever notice any irritability or sleep issues? Yeah, those can happen too.

Now that we have differentiated the two, hopefully we can start using the proper terminology when identifying what’s going on in our bodies. You might be asking yourself, alright Alexis, I know what it is but how the heck do I get rid of it? I’m glad you asked. 

Here are some helpful coping skills and tricks to use to help alleviate both anxiety and panic attacks:

  • Breathing exercises - there are a ton of breathing exercises you can try. My rule of thumb is to make sure you exhale longer than you inhale to regulate your breathing. Oftentimes when we are starting to have rapid breathing, the air is only reaching our chest and not going down to our stomach. We want to make sure that we are intentional with the air going into our lungs. You can try inhaling for 5 seconds - holding for 3 seconds - and exhaling for 8 seconds. You can lay down on your back and place an object on your stomach to help practice intentional breathing too. If you ever get stumped on what breathing exercise to try, when in doubt, Google it!
  • Regular exercise - this gets all the good chemicals going off in your body, our natural high. Exercising has so many health benefits but can also be just as helpful for our mental health by de-stressing, coping, processing, and just letting it all out in a healthy way.
  • Reduce your caffeine, alcohol, and smoking intake - each of these have been linked to making your panic attacks feel even worse. We also want to try to stray away from unhealthy coping strategies that are only avoiding what’s happening and not processing through the root cause.
  • Grounding techniques - these help bring us back down to Earth. This goes hand in hand with mindfulness as both of these techniques are meant to focus on the present moment. Using all 5 senses can be great by identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. This can also be guided imagery, meditations, mantras, etc. My go to mantra is “This is all just temporary. I am good, I am okay, and I am safe.”
  • TIPP acronym - this is a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy technique specifically to help with panic attacks. The acronym, TIPP, stands for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced Breathing, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
  • Temperature - using cold water or ice cubes can help when experiencing distress by regulating your body temperature. You can splash your face with cold water, take a cold shower, cold plunge, put an ice cube behind your neck, there are many variations you can try.
  • Intense Exercise - let’s match our heightened emotions with physical exercise to get all of that energy from within your body, out! You can go for a run, play a sport, go for a bike ride, anything to get your body moving.
  • Paced Breathing - this goes back to the first skill mentioned. You can try STAR breathing where you trace your fingers up when inhaling, then tracing down when exhaling and continuing to do that until your breathing regulates.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation - do you ever notice when you're stressed or going through it that your muscles are so tense? I feel most of mine in my shoulders and have to remind myself to bring them back down. This is where you intentionally squeeze each muscle group in your body. I usually start from the head all the way down to my toes, but you want to squeeze for about 5-10 seconds then release before moving onto the next muscle group. 
  • See a therapist! Listen to your body, it’s talking to you. If you’re experiencing panic or anxiety attacks, talking to a therapist can be helpful in your healing journey. They can help identify and process through your triggers, experiences, and emotions while giving education, tips, and skills to try.

For someone who has experienced anxiety most of their life, I wish I would’ve known about these tricks sooner. I challenge you to try a few of these techniques and notice the difference you feel. This is our era of taking back control over our body and mind and not letting it rule us. 

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