If you are a bit of a worrier, but some days just seem particularly overwhelming, your breathing gets shallow, and you cannot focus, then what you are most likely having is an anxiety attack. However, if you’re feeling fine and then, for no apparent reason, your heart starts to race, you can’t catch your breath, and you need to sit down because you are feeling ill, then you are most likely having a panic attack.
Even though they share similar symptoms, anxiety attacks and panic attacks are two different experiences, explains Amanda M. Spray, PhD, director of NYU Langone’s Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry. “The difference between the two is about the suddenness of the feelings—usually (but not always) people who get panic attacks will feel OK before it happens,” she says.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, which often lead to panic attacks and what people refer to as anxiety attacks. Medication management is also an option. In the moment, breathing exercises can be effective to de-escalate anxiety symptoms. “It’s very helpful to have your exhale be longer than your inhale to restore the balance of CO2 and oxygen in your body,” Dr. Spray says.
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