Anxiety and panic have a lot in common and hence are often mistaken for each other. However they are very different in their causes, symptoms. and management. And if they go untreated or inappropriately managed, they can result in much physical and mental distress.
This makes it important for us to understand the difference between anxiety and panic attack.
Both have excessive worry, apprehension, nervousness, fear, difficulties in breathing, sweating, palpitations and tremulousness at their core.
However, anxiety is usually related to the anticipation of a stressful situation, experience, or event. It comes gradually and is generally not very specific. In fact, it is often described as ‘free floating’. It can be mild, moderate or severe.
Panic, on the other hand, is almost always severe, sudden and involves intense, overwhelming fear with more severe physical symptoms.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes panic attacks as a distinct mental disorder, classifying them as unexpected or expected. Unexpected panic attacks occur without an obvious cause, whereas expected panic attacks are triggered by external stressors.
A panic attack can be superimposed on an anxiety episode. Let’s say you are anxious about an upcoming exam. During the exam, your anxiety may progress to a panic attack. Sometimes a panic attack may result in anticipatory anxiety of another episode of a panic attack.
Panic attacks and anxiety can be caused by a genetic predisposition, childhood experiences, and external stressors such as occupational pressures, social situations and specific phobias.
Hormonal irregularities especially in the thyroid and reproductive hormones and insulin can also cause anxiety and panic attacks. Drugs such as cocaine and marijuana as well as stimulants such as caffeine can induce anxiety and panic.
In order to treat anxiety and/or panic disorders, doctors need a history on the onset, duration, and progress of the symptoms along with a family history of medical and psychiatric disorders.
Usually an individually-tailored approach that has a combination of treatments is recommended. In today’s age, both anxiety and panic, although different in their causes and manifestations are common and eminently treatable. Most patients improve considerably within a few weeks. However, some may require long term treatment and very rarely hospitalization.
It is important to recognize the symptoms of anxiety and panic and not to hesitate to seek help from one’s family, friends, counsellors and psychiatrists. Untreated, these disorders can contribute to personal and occupational problems and sometimes can result in physical and mental disorders. Treated appropriately, individuals should lead meaningful and joyful lives while attaining their true potentials.