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Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are two forms of mental illness that many people suffer from. However, there’s been confusion over discrepancies between these two “attacks”. Is there a clear line between what distinguishes an anxiety attack from a panic attack? The short answer is yes.

The term “anxiety attack” is more of an ambiguous term, because there is not an official agreed upon definition of the term. It also is not officially listed in the DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). There is a more established definition of what a panic attack entails.

A panic attack usually a discrete period of fear and discomfort which is characterized by very specific symptoms. These symptoms usually include tachycardia (increased heart rate), sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, chills and impending fear of losing control. There are actually variations of panic attacks that can be described in greater detail. Usually, these symptoms peak at around 10 minutes.

The body’s natural “fight-or-flight” defensive mechanism is precipitated by the sympathetic nervous system, and there are usually specific triggers (events or people). What makes having a panic attack dangerous, however, is that sometimes a trigger is not needed. Sometimes, they just happen for no reason.

Other factors that may make you more susceptible to a panic attack include genetics, being a female, having other mental disorders and environmental factors such as a death in the family, losing a job or being predisposed to parents who have panic attacks. Some factors are modifiable, while others are unfortunately not. However, patients who suffer from panic disorder (a prolonged series of panic attacks) see about 10 doctors before an official diagnosis is made. Anxiety attacks, once again, are not an official “clinical term”.

Anxiety attacks are usually described by people as an extended period of anxiety. Usually, they are more severe than a normal feeling of anxiety but less severe than a full-blown panic attack. While panic attacks peak at around 10 or so minutes, anxiety attacks can range from hours to weeks, depending on the severity of the situation. Patterns of avoidance and extreme caution accompany anxiety attacks.

While it can be initially difficult to discern the two, understand that only one of the two terms is an official clinical term.