What is the difference between stress, anxiety, and panic attacks?

In today’s fast-paced world, it’s not uncommon for individuals to experience feelings of stress, anxiety, or even panic attacks. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they are distinct in their nature and symptoms. In this article, we will explore the differences between stress, anxiety, and panic attacks, identify their symptoms, discuss potential causes, and provide effective management strategies. If you find yourself struggling with any of these conditions, it is essential to know when to seek professional help.

How can I tell if I’m experiencing stress, anxiety, or a panic attack?

While these conditions may share some common symptoms, they each have distinct characteristics. Here’s a breakdown to help you differentiate between them:


  1. Stress is often a response to external pressures, such as work deadlines, financial difficulties, or relationship issues.
  2. Common signs of stress include feeling overwhelmed, irritable, or having difficulty concentrating.
  3. Physical symptoms of stress may include tension headaches, muscle aches, digestive problems, or changes in appetite.


  1. Anxiety is an internal state of unease characterized by excessive worry and apprehension. It can persist even when there is no immediate threat or trigger.
  2. Symptoms of anxiety may include persistent feelings of restlessness, irritability, or a sense of impending doom.
  3. Physically, anxiety can manifest as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling, sweating, or gastrointestinal discomfort.

Panic Attacks:

  1. Panic attacks are intense episodes of fear or discomfort that arise suddenly and reach their peak within minutes.
  2. During a panic attack, individuals may experience a rapid heartbeat, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling, or a sense of losing control.
  3. Panic attacks often occur unexpectedly and may lead to a fear of future attacks, potentially resulting in changes in behaviour or avoiding certain situations.

It’s important to note that while stress and anxiety can be related, anxiety disorders can exist independently of stress. Panic attacks, on the other hand, are typically associated with panic disorder but can also occur as a result of other conditions.

Are stress and anxiety the same thing?

Although stress and anxiety share similarities, they are distinct experiences. Here’s a breakdown to clarify their differences:


  1. Stress is a physiological and psychological response to external pressures, demands, or challenging situations.
  2. It is often a short-term reaction that occurs when facing specific stressors, such as work deadlines, financial difficulties, or relationship issues.
  3. Stress can have both positive and negative aspects. In small doses, it can motivate and increase focus, but excessive or prolonged stress can be harmful to overall well-being.


  1. Anxiety is a broader term that encompasses a range of conditions characterized by persistent feelings of worry, fear, or unease.
  2. It is often an internal state of apprehension that can arise without a clear or identifiable trigger.
  3. Anxiety tends to be a more chronic and long-term condition, extending beyond specific stressors.
  4. Individuals with anxiety disorders may experience excessive or irrational worry, along with physical symptoms like restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbances.

What are the physical symptoms of stress, anxiety, and panic attacks?

Physical symptoms can manifest in varying degrees during episodes of stress, anxiety, and panic attacks. Here are some common physical symptoms associated with each condition:


  1. Headaches or migraines
  2. Muscle tension or pain
  3. Fatigue or low energy levels
  4. Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or excessive sleep
  5. Changes in appetite, leading to weight loss or gain
  6. Gastrointestinal issues, including stomachaches, indigestion, or diarrhea


  1. Increased heart rate or palpitations
  2. Rapid or shallow breathing
  3. Chest tightness or discomfort
  4. Sweating, especially in the palms or underarms
  5. Trembling or muscle twitches
  6. Gastrointestinal problems, such as nausea or an upset stomach

Panic Attacks:

  1. Intense and overwhelming fear or a sense of impending doom
  2. Chest pain or tightness
  3. Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  4. Dizziness or lightheadedness
  5. Profuse sweating or chills
  6. Trembling or shaking
  7. Numbness or tingling sensations
  8. Feeling detached from reality or experiencing depersonalization
  9. Nausea or abdominal distress

Can stress lead to anxiety and panic attacks?

Prolonged or chronic stress can increase the risk of developing anxiety and panic attacks. However, not everyone who experiences stress will develop these conditions. Various factors, such as individual susceptibility and coping mechanisms, contribute to their development.

What are some effective ways to manage stress, anxiety, and panic attacks?

Managing stress, anxiety, and panic attacks involves adopting healthy coping strategies. Techniques like deep breathing exercises, physical activity, mindfulness, and seeking social support can help alleviate symptoms and improve overall well-being.

Remember, these strategies may not work the same way for everyone, so it’s essential to find what works best for you. It’s recommended to seek professional help if stress, anxiety, or panic attacks persist or significantly impact your daily functioning and quality of life.

Is it possible to have anxiety without panic attacks?

Yes, it is entirely possible to have anxiety without experiencing panic attacks. Anxiety disorders encompass a range of conditions, and panic attacks are just one manifestation. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and specific phobias are examples of anxiety disorders that may not involve panic attacks.

What are the main causes of stress, anxiety, and panic attacks?

The causes of stress, anxiety, and panic attacks can vary. Here’s a table of what causes the three:

Causes of Stress, Anxiety and Panic Attacks

It’s important to note that these causes can interact and vary from person to person. Some individuals may be more susceptible to stress, anxiety, or panic attacks due to their unique vulnerabilities and life circumstances. Understanding the potential causes can help individuals recognize triggers and develop effective coping strategies.

How do I know when to seek professional help for stress, anxiety, or panic attacks?

Recognizing when to seek professional help is crucial. If symptoms persist, interfere with daily functioning, or cause significant distress, it is advisable to consult a healthcare professional or a mental health provider. They can provide an accurate diagnosis and recommend appropriate treatment options.

Are there any natural remedies or alternative treatments for stress, anxiety, and panic attacks?

While there are various natural remedies and alternative treatments that may help manage stress, anxiety, and panic attacks, it’s important to remember that they should not replace professional guidance. Techniques such as relaxation exercises, herbal supplements, and alternative therapies like acupuncture or aromatherapy may complement conventional treatments but should be used under expert supervision.


Understanding the distinctions between stress, anxiety, and panic attacks is essential for effectively managing these conditions. By recognizing the symptoms, seeking appropriate help when needed, and implementing healthy coping strategies, individuals can regain control over their mental well-being. If you’re in Canada and seeking professional support, consider reaching out to Archways, a private psychology clinic committed to evidence-based therapies that can help you on your journey to a better life.

About the Author

Joanna Jeffers, M.A., C.Psych.