Anxiety disorders vs anxiety attacks or stress

Posted on 2 February 2017

A clinical psychologist explains the difference between anxiety disorders and attacks as well as anxiety attacks and stress.

 Anxiety disorders versus anxiety attacks

‘An anxiety attack is a single acute episode with high-intensity symptoms, while anxiety disorder is a more chronic condition with symptoms that are spread over a period of months or even years. The main difference has to do with the acute factor versus the long-term or chronic factor,’ says Dr Jacob van Zyl, a clinical psychologist in private practice who also used to practice at Mediclinic Nelspruit.

The two often go hand-in-hand, but someone can have an anxiety disorder without suffering from anxiety or panic attacks. Generally, however, the reverse isn’t true. People who suffer from panic attacks tend to have an underlying anxiety disorder, in Dr van Zyl’s experience. Some people may have a panic attack after a traumatic event without an underlying anxiety disorder, but it will be the exception to the rule.

‘You can think about it in terms of a continuum,’ Dr van Zyl explains. ‘You start with tension, which can turn into stress. It can then become anxiety, which can become a panic attack. This can then evolve into free-floating anxiety which could lead to a psychotic episode if the sufferer falls on the extreme side of the spectrum.’

Anxiety versus daily stress

The moment physical symptoms kick in, such as heart palpitations, increased heartbeat, light trembling, sweating, dizziness, physical as well as emotional discomfort, sometimes even stomach cramps and nausea, it is no longer just ordinary stress, says Dr van Zyl.

Treating anxiety

‘When we deal with anxiety, it is important to deal with our daily stressors in a more constructive and healthy way,’ Dr van Zyl adds. ‘People often tend to escape their pain or stress in unhealthy ways, so it’s important to practise the skill of mindfulness (to be focused in the here and now with all your senses), as well as to be aware of your reactions and to control your breathing.’

He explains that psychotherapy can teach patients skills of cognition or recognising and changing their response to stress and anxiety. Generally, however, a combination of bio-chemical treatment and psychotherapy is the best option for treating anxiety.


Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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