Stress, anxiety or panic?
How to know the difference

Rating :  [Mouse-over to Rate]
Text Size Print
Ever experience a sudden, unexpected feeling of fear, terror, intense apprehension or discomfort? It could be a panic attack. Here’s how to know for sure.

Although panic attacks (also known as anxiety attacks) aren’t in themselves dangerous or a sign of illness, they sometimes cause people to avoid situations or events — and that can interfere with their quality of life.

Key characteristics of a panic attack

Panic attacks are distinct from general feelings of anxiety or stress because they:

  • Occur suddenly, without warning
  • Usually last 20-30 minutes, and rarely more than an hour
  • Peak within 10 minutes
  • Are very intense

Symptoms you may experience

During a full-blown panic attack, you’ll experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty catching your breath, or sensation of being smothered
  • Feeling of choking
  • Rapid heart rate, palpitations or pounding heart
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Dizziness, unsteadiness, lightheadedness or feeling faint
  • Nausea or stomach distress
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Sweating
  • Feeling of unreality of being detached from yourself
  • Feeling as though you are having a heart attack or even dying

Since these symptoms could be the warning signs of another condition, you should consult your doctor before you self diagnose. And if you are prone to panic attacks, talk to your doctor about possible treatments.


  • BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information, Here to help: website
  •, Anxiety attacks and disorders: Symptoms, types, and treatment: website
  •, Panic attacks, panic disorder and agoraphobia: Symptoms, causes, and treatment: website
  •, Anxiety: When is it a problem?: website
  •, Panic attacks: website
  • The New York Times, Health Guide, Stress and anxiety: website

Want to get the latest tips and tools? Sign up for our e-newsletter! is updating its content twice per week. Subscribe to the e-newsletter to stay informed on the new information published on the website. Every 2 weeks, you'll receive an electronic newsletter with highlights from the 4 recently published articles from the past 2 weeks. will not share or use your e-mail address for any purpose except to send you the e-newsletter.