Do You Know the Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack?

Do You Know the Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack?

     A ton of bricks are sitting on your chest. There is not enough air in the world to fill your lungs. If your heart beats any faster it is going to explode–no your whole body is going to explode. You need to get to the hospital because you are going to die—if only you could move your legs. This is the birth of a panic cycle.

     Panic attacks can be debilitating. They can come out of nowhere or they can be provoked by a trigger. Whatever the case, the fear of having another attack creates a vicious cycle of fear of more panic attacks to come.

     When I (Laura) see a client for their first session, I assess for panic attacks. I’ve learned that I cannot ask if someone has panic attacks because most people do not know the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks.  So what is the difference?  (Maybe you’re questioning anxiety altogether.  Read “I’m Worried That I Have Anxiety“.


• Increased heart rate

• Hyperventilating

• Sweating

• A response to known or unknown stimulus

• A pervasive fear of another attack

• The feeling you are going to die                          


• Increased heart rate

• Shallow breathing

• Sweating

• A response to known or unknown stimulus

• Magical Thinking

• Ruminating/Obsessing

Panic Attacks

       A panic attack feels like a very physical event, but it is actually a psychological event that creates a bodily response. Unless the sufferer has learned that they have panic attacks, many believe themselves to be experiencing a serious medical emergency. Many go to the hospital for fear of having a cardiac event.

      A panic attack is a very frightening experience for the sufferer and for those witnessing it. Sometimes it takes the evaluation of a doctor to convince the sufferer that they would benefit from counseling and/or psychotropic medications.

     Medications may quell the anxiety response that provokes panic attacks but they do not uncover the meaning behind the fear. Counseling and journaling can help the sufferer to better acknowledge the cause of these fears and can help them learn to manage their anxiety by developing coping skills.

Anxiety Attacks

    Anxiety attacks are much more common than panic attacks. Often they are the result of the sufferer ruminating, or obsessing, over a particular issue, concern or situation. They may replay social situations over and over again in their minds or may rehearse activities that they are about to participate in frequently.

      The sufferer may use magical thinking to try to lessen their fears. Magical thinking is a thought process where an individual thinks a certain way to influence the outcome. For instance, they may tell themselves that if they think about a certain subject long enough that because they were thinking it, the bad thing they were afraid of is not going to happen. Magical thinking is not rooted in logic or reason, hence “magical thinking.”

     Much like panic attacks, anxiety attacks are a very physical experience. The heart rate may increase, breathing may become shallow, there may be the fluttering of butterflies in the stomach or stomach upset, the sufferer may become sweaty, and muscles tense.


      According to Weill Cornell Medical College over 20% of hospital emergency room visits are the result of panic attacks. This is a harrowing statistic. As a mental health professional I understand that it is a very frightening event, but as a concerned citizen it makes me want to better educate people about panic attacks so that people get the proper care without clogging the emergency room for those folks who are suffering from true cardiac emergencies.

     I am not endorsing avoiding the hospital when there is a fear of a cardiac event. I am, however, encouraging people to notice patterns in their lives. People like to avoid pain at all costs. Counseling can be painful. Most would rather take a pill than consider facing their fears. There are helpers out there who are trained to help panic suffers learn to cope and get relief.

     For a more in-depth discussion on this subject listen to the episode 011 Anxiety Attack or Panic Attack? on Relationship Helpers (Vincent & Laura’s podcast).

Published by Laura Ketchie | Counselor

Laura Ketchie, LPC is a counselor who specializes in women's issues. Her favorite verse is: "...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." Philippians 4:8-9

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