recovery from addiction

What’s the Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and a Panic Attack?

Published on December 11, 2019 by First Responder Wellness

The terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” are often used interchangeably, but in reality, these are two different events that may mean different things for your mental health.  Both anxiety and panic are responses of the sympathetic nervous system to a perceived threat, and are often described as the flight-or-fight response. While there are many similarities, it is important to understand the difference between these experiences, as well as what conditions they may indicate.  

Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety and anxiety attacks are not clearly defined, and symptoms may vary between individuals.  Anxiety attacks are not officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-5.  However, anxiety and anxiety attacks may be a symptom of several different psychiatric disorders. Anxiety is a feeling that can also manifest as a physical experience in the body, and may include symptoms such as excessive worry, fear, chest pain, shortness of breath, dry mouth, nausea, shaking, and many others.  Anxiety may be considered an “attack” when symptoms become severe, although the description of an anxiety attack usually differs dramatically from person to person.

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks share many of the same symptoms, but anxiety is typically a reaction to external stressors or threats, whereas panic attacks can happen out of the blue.  Anxiety can be carried with the individual as they function normally in their day-to-day life, and may not be visible to friends, family, and coworkers until it becomes severe. When anxiety goes untreated for a significant period of time, or when stressful events in life become overwhelming, it can culminate in episodes of extreme anxiety that feel like attacks.

Panic Attacks

Unlike anxiety attacks, panic attacks are recognized as a psychiatric disorder in the DSM-5, and can be categorized as either expected or unexpected.  While panic attacks can happen to anyone at any time, experiencing more than a single event can be a sign of panic disorder. Panic attacks may occur at the same time as high anxiety, but the symptoms are usually far more severe and interfere with an individual’s ability to function.  Physical symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating can be a sign of both anxiety and panic, but panic attacks also include severe mental and physical symptoms such as the fear of dying, a sense of detachment from the world, and numb or tingling limbs.  

Many people experiencing a panic attack believe they are having a heart attack or stroke, especially if it is the first time an attack has occurred.  The fear of sudden death can add to the stress of the experience, and many panic attacks result in a visit to the emergency room. After someone understands that they have had a panic attack, it is common to become incredibly preoccupied with the fear if it happening again.  A panic attack is not easily hidden and may be disruptive, which can leave someone feeling embarrassed and ashamed. Panic disorder is twice as common in women, and can lead to subsequent psychiatric disorders such as agoraphobia, which is the fear of leaving the house.


Unexpected panic attacks are by definition unrelated to any external or environmental factors, but anxiety and expected panic attacks may be triggered by several different factors.  If an individual has a phobia, such as a debilitating fear of driving or of crowded spaces, panic attacks may occur as a result of exposure to the phobia. Many people who regularly experience anxiety are triggered by social situations, and social environments can trigger both anxiety and panic.  People with anxiety and panic disorders also need to pay close attention to what they ingest and how substances affect their mental state. Anxiety and panic may be brought on by alcohol, drugs, and even caffeine.   

Additionally, people who work high-stress jobs are very prone to anxiety-related disorders, including panic disorder.  For first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder or secondary-traumatic stress disorder, disturbing flashbacks and intrusive thoughts and memories can also trigger anxiety and panic.  Anxiety and panic can both get in the way of job performance and overall quality of life. 

Anxiety, Panic, and Substance Abuse

Both anxiety and panic disorders have an effect on the individual’s happiness and ability to function in daily life.  Many people who experience these symptoms feel like they are unable to cope, and may turn to drugs or alcohol to manage their emotions.  Unfortunately, using substances to self-medicate will only make symptoms more severe over time, and may lead to addiction. People experiencing anxiety or panic attacks as well as a substance use disorder should seek treatment from an addiction recovery center equipped to provide a dual diagnosis.

The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.  We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigmas may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult. Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships.  By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing. First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.