What is the difference between anxiety and panic?

Vassilia Binensztok, PhD, LMHC, NCC

People often use the terms anxiety and panic interchangeably but, while they are related to each other, they show up in different ways. Simply put, anxiety is centered more around our thoughts and physical and emotional reactions to them while panic is a largely a physical, nervous-system response.  Anxious thoughts can trigger panic and panic can add to overall anxiety, in a furious interplay.

Symptoms of anxiety and panic

Anxiety Symptoms

Chronic worry

Irrational fears

Irritability/ feeling on edge


Difficulty concentrating/metal fog



Racing thoughts

Intrusive thoughts

Inability to control worry

Overthinking situations in negative ways

Sense of impending doom

Physical symptoms: stomachaches, muscle tension, lump in throat, nausea

Panic Symptoms

Racing heart

Feeling weak or faint

Feeling dizzy

Overwhelming fear

Sense of impending doom

Feeling like you are going to die

Feeling like you are losing your mind



Shortness of breath

Feeling out of control

Feeling of choking

Tunnel vision

Feeling disconnected from one’s body

How anxiety and panic are similar

Anxiety and panic both affect our nervous systems to varying degrees.  They cause us to feel out of control of our thoughts and to experience strange physical symptoms.  Both experiences can feel crippling in the moment and cause us to want to avoid people, places, and situations.  We start to change our lives around to accommodate the anxiety and panic, in order to try to control the discomfort. In this way, we end up being controlled ourselves when we compromise our lives instead of living life how we want.

How anxiety and panic are different

Anxiety is primarily characterized by worry and anxious thoughts.  Anxiety tends to be continuous though it can fluctuate in intensity.  Usually, people with anxiety experience worry and negative thoughts that are present most of the time, with surges in more intense anxiety fears when triggered by thoughts or outside events.  For example, someone can worry about various things in their life, including their job and relationships.  They might find themselves consumed with worrisome thoughts most days and then experience surges of increased anxiety if they get bad news or have an argument with a loved one.

Panic can induce frightening thoughts of losing control or going crazy, but is primarily a physical experience.  While anxiety can produce physical symptoms, panic is an experience that triggers our nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, producing many scary physical sensations.  Additionally, panic usually occurs in bouts called panic attacks.  Panic attacks are periods of extreme discomfort and fear, including the symptoms listed above. Panic attacks can vary in severity and duration but typically do not last longer than a few hours, whereas anxiety is constantly present.

How anxiety and panic affect each other

People can have any of the following experiences:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder cooccurring with Panic Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder with panic symptoms
  • Anxiety symptoms with panic symptoms
  • Anxiety that triggers panic attacks
  • Panic Disorder with anxiety symptoms
  • Anxiety about having panic attacks

Regardless of how we experience anxiety and panic, both can be treated with various techniques. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Existential Therapy are all effective psychotherapy approaches for anxiety and panic. Anxiety therapy can also include processing traumatic events, learning to calm the nervous system, exposure to feared objects, and finding one’s purpose and values.

If you are ready to get rid of your anxiety and panic for good and need an anxiety therapist in Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, or West Palm Beach, call me for a complimentary consultation.  Take the first step to beat your anxiety and panic!

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