Written by Shannon,
8 Minute Read
Medically reviewed by:
Erin O'Callaghan, PHD
Director of Therapy
10 Minute Read
Both generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder can be debilitating mental health conditions to deal with, but the reality is that they are not the same thing, and it is important to recognize the difference.
Part of becoming more aware when it comes to mental health conditions is taking the time to do your research and further educate yourself regarding symptoms such as generalized anxiety or panic attacks and what makes them different from each other. If you are looking to learn more about this distinction, you are in the right place.
On the other hand, if you are struggling with either generalized anxiety or panic attacks and you are not sure which one you are dealing with or if you are dealing with both of them, this is your guide to knowing the difference and treating them accordingly with the appropriate mental healthcare.
What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety disorders are medical conditions that “differ from normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness, and involve excessive fear or anxiety.”
Sometimes, feelings of anxiety will be triggered by something obvious, such as fear you are experiencing before a big event, like a presentation, or in social settings (deemed social anxiety), which can lead to agoraphobia.
However, other times you may feel anxiety for no apparent reason, which could be a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder can include the following symptoms:
- Feelings of restlessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Zoning out
- Muscle tension
- Uncontrollable feelings of worry
- Sleep problems such as insomnia, unsatisfying sleep, or difficulty falling or staying asleep
Beyond this list, generalized anxiety disorder can also appear differently in different people, and it may not always be easy to recognize. A constant need for reassurance, for example, is another potential indicator of an anxiety disorder that can be more difficult to pick up on.
What Are Panic Attacks? Why Do They Happen?
A panic attack is an episode of intense fear and panic that triggers severe physical symptoms. Panic attacks are often caused by the perception of danger where there is none, or panic attacks sometimes happen with no apparent cause.
While many people will have a couple of panic attacks in their lifetime, some people will live in constant fear of having another panic attack, and when this happens, it is called panic disorder.
Panic attacks can be extremely intense and frightening, so much so that some people may mistake their symptoms for a heart attack.
Most often, panic attacks seem unpredictable and can be very sudden and surprising. Panic attacks can happen completely unexpectedly, or they may happen due to some kind of trigger.
People struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, may experience panic attacks as a result of their triggers that bring up feelings related to traumatic events.
The symptoms of a panic attack usually peak within minutes but can last for an hour or so in some cases, and you may feel very fatigued after a panic attack subsides.
Common symptoms of a panic attack include:
- An overwhelming feeling of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Rapid or pounding heart rate
- Muscle tension
- Trembling, shaking, or shivering
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat and chest
- Chills or hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, faintness, or lightheadedness
- Numbness or tingling sensations, especially in your extremities
- Dissociation or derealization
The majority of the physical symptoms caused by a panic attack happen because your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, which is your body’s response to danger.
Although panic attacks themselves are not dangerous, they can be very difficult to manage on your own and can be very frightening.
What Is the Difference, and How Can I Stop An Attack?
Though generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder share some common symptoms, they’re two very different conditions.
Panic disorders are usually specifically caused by the fear of future panic attacks. When an individual has a panic disorder, they don’t usually have peristing worries outside of the excessive worry and paranoia about their next panic attack. This intense fear of having another panic attack can get in the way of being able to participate in certain activities or perform daily tasks. The actual panic attack itself also involves very intense physical symptoms such as a racing heart beat, lightheadedness, a feeling of impending doom, and muscle tightness.
Generalized anxiety, on the other hand, usually involves long-lasting worry about many issues. Symptoms are generally more mental and emotional than physical, such as not being able to escape negative thoughts, worrying about scenarios that are unlikely to happen, and having irrational fears about certain social interactions. Anxiety can cause physical feelings of nausea, clammy hands, and a general feeling of discomfort, but these are different than the intense panic involved in a panic attack. While some people with an anxiety disorder may experience panic attacks, this does not mean they have a panic disorder.
Finding coping strategies that effectively help you manage your stress and anxiety can help curb panic attacks.
These strategies can include deep breathing techniques, meditation, exercise, connecting with friends and family, listening to music, getting enough sleep, or developing a nutritious meal schedule.
However, if you have panic attacks so frequently that you’ve developed a panic disorder, you may want to seek help from a mental health professional.
How a Mental Health Professional May Be Able To Help
If you are experiencing generalized anxiety, panic attacks, both, or even other forms of mental illness, a mental health professional may be able to help you learn to manage and recognize your symptoms.
Both generalized anxiety and panic attacks can be scary and overwhelming in their own ways, but people dealing with both of them may be especially worn out.
A professional provider can help you work through your feelings of panic or anxiety through psychotherapy, helping you find productive ways of coping with your anxiety and calming yourself down when a panic attack does happen. They may also prescribe medication for your anxiety if deemed necessary.
Brightside can give you better anxiety care right from your pocket with evidence-based therapy and science-backed approaches. Additionally, medication can be delivered right to your door.
With Brightside, you start by taking our free online mental health assessment that allows us to better understand your needs and concerns. Then we can match you with a psychiatric provider who will be there to help you every step of the way.
Your provider will work with you to create a personalized treatment plan, and if medication is necessary, it will be prescribed. Treatment plans may entail medication, therapy, or a combination of both, and your provider will make sure you have what you need in order to get back on your feet.
With Brightside, you can get the care you deserve right from the comfort of your own home. We are here to help you help yourself to restore your well-being.
Along with support groups and the help of family members or loved ones, Brightside can assist you in reclaiming your mindfulness and combat the symptoms of these medical conditions.
The Bottom Line
Anxiety and panic attacks are both symptoms of anxiety disorders, and they can both be very frightening. That said, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder are not the same, and knowing the difference is a critical part of being able to identify your own symptoms and struggles.
Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by regular feelings of unease and worry in excessive amounts, often to the extent that you cannot perform daily functions.
Panic disorder, however, is an anxiety disorder involving the fear of panic attacks. Panic attacks can cause severe physical reactions, sometimes even severe enough for them to be mistaken for a heart attack.
Symptoms can include heart palpitations, chest pain, difficulty breathing, trembling or shivering, and an overwhelming sense of impending doom or danger even when danger is not present. Panic attacks cause your body to go into fight-or-flight mode, and this is believed to be the reason behind many of the associated symptoms.
Whether you are struggling with anxiety, panic attacks, or both, Brightside can help you manage your symptoms through various treatment options.
This includes medication, therapy, and relaxation techniques to help you cope with your anxiety and achieve a calmer state of mind and overall wellness.