Panic Attack Vs. Nervous Breakdown: Recognizing the Symptoms of Each

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Knowing the difference between a panic attack and a nervous breakdown is important, as each condition carries its own cocktail of symptoms. Here’s how to tell them apart:

What is a Panic Attack?

Lasting a mere few minutes, a panic attack is often triggered by a sudden and acute sense of fear. A panic episode is often fleeting and typically characterized by shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, asphyxiation, nausea or abdominal pain, dizziness or lightheadedness, feelings of unreality, and fear of losing control or dying.1

In other words, not fun.

What is a Nervous Breakdown?

By contrast, a nervous breakdown is typically the result of prolonged stress, meaning something you’ve been suffering through for a while that culminates in an emotional or mental break.

It’s important to note that the term “nervous breakdown” isn’t a medical one, with some health professionals opting for “stress-related mental disorder” instead.

Signs of a nervous breakdown include feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and intense anxiety. There’s also confusion, forgetfulness, and disorientation; abnormal sleep patterns; changes in appetite; withdrawing from friends and activities; mood swings (including unexplained anger, irritability, and sadness); and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

In other words, totally not fun.

Panic Attack Examples:

To be considered a panic attack, it’s important to note that there is no “clear and present danger” in the examples below:

1. You’re at work and you suddenly feel like you can’t breathe.

2. Your heart is racing and you feel like you’re going to pass out.

3. You start sweating and trembling, and you feel like you’re going to vomit.

4. You feel like everything is spinning around you and you’re about to fall.

5. You feel like you’re losing control or that you’re going to die.

Nervous Breakdown Examples:

In these examples, something that you’ve been suffering through for a while comes to mind, or surfaces from your subconscious as you experience the symptoms of a nervous breakdown:

1. You’ve been feeling overwhelmed and stressed for a while, to the point where you can’t focus on anything.

2. You’ve been having trouble sleeping, eating, and concentrating.

3. You’ve been feeling more and more anxious, irritated, and angry for no reason.

4. You’ve been feeling sad and hopeless for a while, to the point where you don’t want to go on living.

5. You’ve been having thoughts about suicide or self-harm.

Can a Panic Attack Lead to a Nervous Breakdown?

It’s possible for a panic attack to lead to depression and anxiety, which in turn may lead to a nervous breakdown. Particularly if you’re prone to anxiety and stress, one panic attack can easily snowball into a full-blown nervous breakdown.

If you’re experiencing any of the signs of a nervous breakdown, make sure to consult a mental health professional.

What To Do if You Might be Suffering from Both of These Conditions?

If you’re experiencing both panic attacks and signs of a nervous breakdown regularly, it’s important to seek professional help.

Doing so can help you figure out if you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder. In that case, your best bet is to enroll in a medically-assisted program that’ll help you karate-chop said disorder in the face.

Keep in mind that if left untreated, anxiety disorders can lead to more serious mental health conditions, such as depression or addiction.

The Bottom Line on Panic Attacks Vs. Nervous Breakdowns

So, how can you tell the difference between a panic attack and a nervous breakdown? The best way to tell is to look at the overall symptoms you’re experiencing.

If most of your symptoms are related to anxiety and fear, then you’re likely experiencing a panic attack. On the other hand, if most of your symptoms are related to prolonged stress and emotional problems, then you’re likely experiencing a nervous breakdown.

Both of these conditions are serious and should be addressed by a professional. If you’re not sure which one you have, it’s best to seek help so that you can get the treatment you need.

For more information on panic episodes, including what to do when one strikes, check out our 7-Step Guide to Handling a Panic Attack.

  1. Mayo Clinic. Panic attacks and panic disorder. Updated June 30, 2021.
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