Panic Attack Vs Anxiety Attack: The Difference & How to Manage Both

By Erica Garza

Though many people use the terms “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” interchangeably, they are not the same. Some symptoms may be similar — rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness — but the intensity and duration are markedly different. Whether your child stays up at night worrying about their grades or begs you to stay home from school because they’re terrified of something bad happening to them, there are ways to help.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Panic attacks are sudden and extreme, caused by an abrupt onset of fear, shaking, chest pain and the feeling of being disconnected from others are all common symptoms. Panic attacks can occur out of the blue, without any noticeable trigger, although they often happen during an extended period of stress. They typically subside after around 10 minutes. Panic attacks can interfere with a child's or adolescent's social relationships, schoolwork and normal development. Some children begin to avoid situations where they fear a panic attack may occur or situations where they feel help may not be available. Some of the most common symptoms of panic attacks are:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Feeling weak, lightheaded or dizzy
  • Tingling or numbness in the extremities
  • Irrational fear of death
  • Cold sweat, chills
  • Breathing difficulties

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

Unlike the suddenness of panic attacks, anxiety attacks are gradual. They are often a result of built-up worry and rumination. Physical characteristics of anxiety include muscle tension, loss of sleep, stomach aches and irritability. While panic attacks are short-lived, anxiety can last days, weeks and even months. Anxiety might manifest itself in your child’s constant worrying about their grades or about their peers. They might develop phobias like social anxiety or obsessive compulsions. If your child suffers from anxiety, they may be restless, fatigued and easily distracted. Other symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • An excessive worry for days or weeks
  • Difficulty sleeping at night or sleepiness during the day
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Agitation
  • Avoidance
  • Tantrums
  • Emotional meltdowns before or after school

How to Help Manage a Panic Attack

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to anxiety or panic, there are several techniques you can try to help manage these episodes and potentially stop them from occurring again. If your child is in the midst of an intense panic attack, you may try the following:

  • Remain calm while gently telling your child that you are there to support them and that you understand how they feel
  • Reassure your child that the episode will be over soon and that they are safe
  • Engage the child in deep breathing through modeling or simple instructions, as oxygen to the brain will help immediately
  • When your child is calm, make a list of what might be helpful during a panic attack, so that if it occurs again, you can turn to the list for help

How to Manage an Anxiety Attack

Practicing , relaxation techniques and journaling can all be helpful antidotes to anxiety. Minimizing screen time and sugar can also help an anxious child regulate their emotions and become more relaxed. If your child suffers from anxiety, consider the following techniques:

  • Take deep breaths together to slow your child’s heartbeat, lower their blood pressure and increase focus
  • Reassure them that worrying is a normal part of life. This will help your child from feeling ashamed of their anxiety and avoiding your help
  • Redirect your child’s attention from their thoughts to their senses with the mindfulness technique of naming three things they see, three things they hear and three things they feel
  • Have your child tense a part of their body and then release to practice progressive muscle relaxation
  • Keep a worry journal where a child follows a worry or negative thought with a positive thought to help break the cycle of rumination and negativity
  • Have your child name their anxiety as if it were a character and encourage your child to talk back to this character to help them create space between themselves and their anxiety

With practice and patience, panic and anxiety can be eased. Keep in mind that avoiding triggers may be tempting, but not helpful in the long run. Encouraging your child face to their fears and instilling coping mechanisms for their anxiety will help them throughout their lives.

Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds a Master's from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.