The so-called anxiety attack is really the culminating moment of excessive worry over an issue. The symptoms, whilst somewhat similar to a panic event (panic attack), do differ enough to distinguish the two.
Let’s imagine a scenario of the final examination. This is possibly something that could make or break a career, or hold the person back for months if they fail. It isn’t difficult to imagine the strain this puts some people under. Leading up to the day of the exam the individual becomes restless, fidgety and irritable. They want to study but their concentration is failing. Sleep becomes more disturbed and they feel tired and tense. It’s a vicious circle that feeds on itself. Now, all the ingredients are in place for an anxiety attack. On the morning of the exam the person waits outside the exam hall. Everyone else is chatting nervously and laughing. The tension builds. Their jaw clenches and their hands shake and feel clammy. They can feel and hear their heart banging more and more quickly. They feel dizzy, short of breath, sick.
The symptoms are probably severe enough for the person to be noticed and taken aside. Often, a few calming words of reassurance are sufficient for them to settle down and within a few minutes they are able to confront the situation they so dreaded. Once seated and with the examination underway the stressor passes and so does the anxiety. This may be the one and only time this person goes through such an experience, or, it may be the precursor to other situations or events the person associates with stress.
Anxiety attacks and panic attacks can appear so similar that some people appear to have stopped differentiating between the two. In the case of panic attack however the main differences are in the lack of any specific build up to the moment of panic and the level of intensity, which tends to be far more severe. The person who suffers a panic attack may have all of the symptoms previously outlined and more besides. A panic attack tends to come out of the blue and with such severity the person feels they are going crazy and are about to die. There is a genuine fear of dying and the symptoms are quite frequently misinterpreted as a heart attack, often leading to an emergency hospital admission.
People who experience panic attacks tend to misinterpret bodily signs and focus very much on the moment, those who experience anxiety attacks have very specific worrying events in their life that have built up and reached a critical point. The build up is slow and the symptoms of the attack less intense. For people who suffer with panic, a course of cognitive therapy may be helpful. For those prone to anxiety attacks, a course of relaxation may be helpful. Medication is broadly similar for both conditions. Some people prone to anxiety attacks in specific circumstances (stage fright) find that taking a beta blocker roughly 30 minutes before their presentation or performance is sufficient to calm them without the drowsy effects of a tranquilizer.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.