Existential Psychiatry Blog

Panic Attacks vs. Anxiety Attacks: Understanding, Recognizing, and Seeking Help

November 14, 2023
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The ongoing Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey has continued to find high rates of anxiety in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area. October 2023 results found that nearly 50% of participants in the greater Seattle area reported feeling anxious, nervous, or on edge at least several or more days per week.

In a community like ours with high rates of anxiety, understanding the differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks is crucial. It allows for more accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment plans. This offers individuals a better chance to effectively manage and reduce their symptoms.

What do Panic Attacks Look Like?

Panic attacks are characterized by sudden, intense waves of fear. They’re often accompanied by a range of distressing physical and emotional symptoms. These attacks typically come on without warning. It may feel like you’re having a heart attack or out of control. Others describe it as feeling dread or as though they can’t breathe. Anyone who has gone through this would likely tell you it’s a genuinely terrifying experience.

During a panic attack, the body enters "fight or flight" mode, even when there is no immediate threat. Common physical symptoms of panic attacks include:

In addition to the physical symptoms, panic attacks often include intense and irrational thoughts of impending doom or a fear of losing control. You may also experience a sense of detachment from reality. Typically, these attacks last for a brief period, usually around 10-20 minutes, but are incredibly distressing.

What do Anxiety Attacks Look Like?

Anxiety attacks involve a prolonged and overwhelming sense of fear, worry, or apprehension. Unlike panic attacks, which are sudden and intense, anxiety attacks develop over time and may persist for an extended period. People who experience anxiety attacks often have an underlying anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, or specific phobias.

Common symptoms of anxiety attacks include:

While anxiety attacks may not induce the same intense physical sensations as panic attacks, they can significantly impact your quality of life. These attacks tend to be more chronic and can last for weeks, months, or even years.

Similarities Between Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks

Overwhelming Fear

Both types of attacks are characterized by overwhelming fear or intense apprehension. This can be severe and debilitating for individuals experiencing either form of attack.

Physical Symptoms

While the intensity and duration differ, both types of attacks can manifest with physical symptoms. Rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and muscle tension are especially common.

Negative Thoughts

Individuals dealing with either of these experiences often have negative and irrational thoughts. These thoughts can further fuel their emotional distress, worsening the situation.

Differences Between Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks

Sudden Onset vs. Gradual Buildup

The most significant difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks is their onset. Panic attacks come on suddenly, with little or no warning, while anxiety attacks typically develop over time and may persist for an extended period.


Panic attacks are usually short-lived, lasting for about 10-20 minutes, although they can feel much longer. In contrast, anxiety attacks can last for weeks, months, or even years, depending on the underlying anxiety disorder.


Panic attacks often occur without an obvious trigger. Many times anxiety attacks are provoked by specific situations, events, or stressors.

Physical Intensity

Physical symptoms tend to be more intense during panic attacks, even resembling those of a heart attack. The symptoms during anxiety attacks may cause impairment, but not be as severe.

Signs It's Time to Seek Professional Help

Recognizing when to seek professional help is crucial for managing panic and anxiety attacks. Common signs that it's time to consult a mental health professional include:

How Treatment Can Help

The good news is that both panic attacks and anxiety attacks are treatable. Various therapeutic approaches and interventions can help you regain control over your life and reduce distress, including:

Work with your health care provider to determine the best treatment plan for you.

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks, although distinct, share many commonalities. The intense fear and discomfort they generate can disrupt daily life and profoundly impact your well-being. Recognizing the signs that it's time to seek professional help is the first step in regaining control. Support is available, and effective treatments can help improve your quality of life.

Looking for Anxiety Treatment in Seattle?

Dr. David Zacharias has been helping patients find relief from anxiety and panic attacks for over 20 years. Using a patient-centered approach, he’ll collaborate with you to create a personalized and supportive treatment plan that fits your needs, strengths, and preferences. As a psychiatrist, he provides diagnostic assessment, medication management, and therapy, so you don't have to go between different providers for treatment.

Existential Psychiatry is here to help you heal and get back to enjoying your daily life. Reach out today for a free consultation.

Written by Existential Psychiatry Staff


Household Pulse Survey Data Tables.” United States Census Bureau, October 2023. Accessed November 3, 2023.

Panic Attacks & Panic Disorder.” Cleveland Clinic, February 12. 2023. Accessed November 3, 2023.