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How to Tell the Difference Between Anxiety and Panic

Anxiety and panic are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same.

Key points

  • Understanding anxiety and panic can help to reduce their impact on your life.
  • Recognizing how panic attacks feel can help you cope with uncomfortable physical symptoms.
  • As we demystify these uncomfortable feelings, they lose their power and we become more able to cope.

Anxiety and panic, while similar to one another, are not one and the same, though they are often spoken of interchangeably. It is important to understand the difference between the two before you can fully understand panic and panic attacks. In simple terms, anxiety is defined by prolonged feelings of worry that vary in intensity, whereas panic is acute and intense, often lasting only a few minutes but still extremely uncomfortable and frightening. Anxiety often precedes panic and can sometimes cause panic to occur, particularly when it becomes overwhelming and persistent. Anxiety is usually brought on by a specific, identifiable activating event, or trigger, while panic can occur unexpectedly. For example, you may experience anxiety ahead of an important work or school presentation, whereas panic may not necessarily be connected to a specific event or situation. The comparison below outlines what you may commonly experience when you are anxious versus what you experience when you are panicked.


  • Uncomfortable but not necessarily intense physical symptoms.
  • Can last an extended period of time, even days or weeks.
  • Often logically connected to a specific event or situation.
  • “Free-floating” feelings of worry that can vary and change in intensity.
  • Generalized feelings of uneasiness and discomfort.


  • Intense physical symptoms that cause significant distress.
  • Typically short in duration, usually lasting no more than three-to-five minutes for the most intense symptoms.
  • Often not easily connected to a single, identifiable event or situation.
  • Specific physical symptoms and sensations of severe discomfort.
  • Acute feelings of dread that are consistently intense.

This important distinction between anxiety and panic is helpful in not confusing the two and for understanding why panic experiences can be so much greater in intensity and can feel more difficult to manage.

Panic attacks can take different forms for different individuals. It is important to understand what symptoms commonly occur during panic and panic attacks. Here are the commonly-experienced physical symptoms of a panic attack:

Palpitations: Accelerated heart rate is commonly experienced during a panic attack. When this happens, we may feel like our hearts are fluttering, pounding, or beating too fast.

Sweating: Sweating is how the body attempts to soothe itself and cool down its temperature. So, though uncomfortable, sweating is actually the body’s way of trying to calm itself. It stands to reason, then, that while in a panic state, we may experience perspiration more than we would in a calmer state.

Trembling or Shaking: In a state of overwhelm, the body responds much like an overheated car might: it ceases to run smoothly and, instead, feels unsteady, wobbly, and shaky. Our bodies can feel unsteady and we can experience sensations of shakiness when we are panicked.

Shortness of Breath: During a panic attack, it is common to feel that you are unable to catch your breath. As the respiratory system kicks into overdrive, it becomes stressed and, therefore, breathing becomes labored.

Feelings of Choking: Think of panic as a tightening of your body. As muscles, airways, and joints become tight, they naturally feel constricted. In a state of constriction, it can feel difficult to swallow which can create the sensation that you are choking.

Chest Pain: The chest and heart are common places where panic is felt. Panic sensations in this region of the body can present as pain and tightness in the chest, and/or extreme general discomfort in the chest cavity and heart area.

Nausea or Abdominal Distress: The gastrointestinal system is one of the body’s most intense responders to panic. Many individuals experience nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting when in a state of panic.

Dizziness: Think about the body as being “off-kilter” when it is panicked. In these times, we tend to lose our sense of grounding, and therefore feel shaky, dizzy, and lightheaded.

Chills or Heat Sensations: The body’s systems of regulation are impacted by panic. In an overwhelmed state, the body may struggle to regulate its temperature, resulting in chills or feelings of being overheated.

Derealization or Depersonalization: Intense panic attacks can bring about a feeling of unreality, in which a person feels “out of touch” with what is happening. Similarly, a person may feel as if they are having an out-of-body experience. These feelings are due to the intensity of the body’s fear response.

Fear of Losing Control: In the throes of a panic attack, it feels difficult to make sense of what is happening. This can bring on feelings that we are spiraling out of control and that we do not have a firm grip on ourselves or the situation.

Fear of Dying: Because many of the symptoms described above mimic more serious medical problems, the anxious conclusion that is often drawn during a panic attack is that you are dying. While it is actually not possible to die from a panic attack, it can feel as though your life is in peril.

Anxiety and panic don’t like it when we begin to understand them. As we work to demystify these uncomfortable feelings, they lose their power and we become more able to cope with them.

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