Panicking vs. Panic Attack: What’s the Difference?

You might use them interchangeably, but they are *definitely* different.

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As much as everyone hates, say, public speaking (or even scarier, public singing), we all get stuck with having to do it at some time or another. If you’re like most people, you may feel your heart racing as your moment to take the mic approaches, and you might even feel churning in your stomach.

“I nearly had a panic attack,” you might confessed to your peers after the big speech was over.

But was it actually anything close to a panic attack? Well, if you’re just referring to your jitters and queasiness, it’s probably not a panic attack. Those nerves were just the (totally normal) result of your body’s sympathetic nervous system being revved up.

When you perceive a threat, your body prepares for a “fight or flight” response. The racing heart and shallow breathing are all part signs that your body is physically ready to either defend itself… or run far, far away to your safe and cozy bed.

So, What Is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks, a form of anxiety, have similarities to regular moments of panic, but they are more severe and far less common. While panicking feels uncomfortable, a panic attack can feel life-threatening (thankfully, it’s  not).

These symptoms may indicate a panic attack, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Feeling like someone is choking you

  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Dizziness

  • Lack of balance

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Numbness or tingling sensations

  • Depersonalization, like you’re detached from yourself

Panic attack symptoms come on suddenly and intensely, and they can last several minutes. They often feel so severe that many patients with panic attacks visit the hospital each year thinking they are having a heart attack or dying, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

What Is Panic Disorder?

People who experience panic attacks regularly may be diagnosed with panic disorder—a type of anxiety disorder in which panic attacks occur frequently and without warning or during states of calm. Panic disorder affects two to three percent of the U.S. population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

In some cases, people who have panic attacks may begin to fear having them (a phobia known as agoraphobia), which can then induce panic attacks more frequently or make people avoid certain activities.

Luckily, panic attacks and panic disorders are treatable. With treatment, you can reduce or prevent the panic attacks as well as learn to manage anxiety. (Here are different ways anxiety affects the body.)

Even if your intense nerves do not qualify as a panic attack, but are holding you back from fully participating in life, you can speak with a doctor about your anxiety symptoms. They may be able to refer you to a mental health professional who can help you learn new strategies for handling the physical sensations of anxiety.