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Panic Attack or Anxiety Attack? What Is the Difference?

Sep 22, 2020
Child sitting with their hands on the sides of their forehead

With school starting and a socially-distanced fall right around the corner, many of us are experiencing more stress and anxiety. Occasionally, a build-up of stress can cause uncomfortable physical changes that can make us feel like something is wrong with our body. 

Racing heartbeats, tense muscles and trouble breathing can be symptoms of a panic attack in adults and children; rising blood pressure, tunnel vision, shaking or trembling can also happen. It can be hard to sit still or even catch a thought. Friends, family members and even doctors may suggest that we are having a panic attack? Or is it an anxiety attack? What is the difference?

Panic and anxiety attacks are very similar; in fact, the terms are used interchangeably. In both, there is an activation of the nervous system when your body is getting ready to protect you through fight or flight. This causes an overwhelming rush of the physical symptoms mentioned earlier.

There are also some changes in the way we think. Thoughts can feel fast, become scary or negative, or even cease altogether. Scary images can pop up in our minds. We can feel like blacking out and, in rare cases, we can lose consciousness. This can be very frightening!

Although they feel very similar, there are differences between anxiety and panic attacks - a major difference is what happens before the attack.

Panic Attack

A panic attack often feels and seems unpredictable, sneaky, or even surprising. They can happen unexpectedly or be brought on by a subtle trigger, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since they are so unexpected, many parents may think something is wrong with their child and will call or go to a doctor.

Anxiety Attack

An anxiety attack feels more predictable, often being the result of a build-up of anxiety or worry. This is referred to as anticipatory anxiety. You may realize that your child is stressed and aren’t as surprised when that bubbles over to an anxiety attack.

So, what can we do during an attack? Here a few strategies taught by mental health therapists:

Grounding. Grounding is a term that means purposefully focusing on things in our environment. It can be as simple as focusing on the feeling of the chair we are in or paying attention to the way our cup looks. By focusing attention on something that we know is safe, we create a sense of comfort. Our bodies relax. Additional ways to ground include finding a certain number of things you can see, feel, hear, smell, and/or taste. Focus intently on those items.

Breathe. Breathing is a powerful form of grounding and calming the body. Try to focus on the breath. How does it feels in your nose, throat, and lungs? Try to slow your breathing. Consider breathing to a count of four or five, if helpful. You can imagine you are moving a ball around a track or blowing and deflating a balloon with your breathe.

Talking to yourself. If your child able, have them talk kindly to themself. Words and thoughts are powerful. If possible, have them remind themself that they are okay. If kind words and encouragement aren’t possible, play mental games. How many states can you name? Do you remember the words to your favorite song? Can you imagine your favorite place?

Finally, it is important not worry too much about your child having more attacks. Panic and anxiety attacks are very common with about 40% of people having at least one attack in their lives.

Worrying about, dreading, or fearing an attack can cause more stress. This can make it more likely that people will start to avoid activities for fear of an attack. In some cases, attacks can be related to an underlying anxiety disorder that requires treatment by a mental health professional.

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Jessica Bailey
Jessica Bailey, PsyD
Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.