Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Stress–What's the Difference?

Between school, extracurricular activities, college applications, social media, friends and family–it's easy to get overwhelmed.

In fact, a 2019 study done by Pew Research Center revealed that 70% of teens interviewed cited anxiety and depression as a major problem among themselves and their peers. No doubt, post-graduation is at an all-time high, but how do you know if you're dealing with anxiety, stress or a panic attack?

We tapped Dr. Nicole Hisaka at UCLA to break down the difference between the three so you can better understand what you're feeling and how to treat it. Dr Hisaka notes, "Both stress and panic attacks are forms of anxiety, though the severity and triggers to each may significantly differ."


(via Unsplash)


Of the three, stress is definitely the most common and something you'll deal with time and time again throughout your life. There are many stressful situation we face. Work, family, school and personal relationships will all be a source of stress at some point, but managing it is totally possible.

Although stress is a type of anxiety, Dr. Hisaka explains that, "being 'stressed out' is generally a street name that is derived from being overwhelmed, having too much on your plate, or not being able to cognitively organize information that can be seen with a logical solution at the time."

Stress can happen when you have a lot going on, especially around busy times of the year like finals, when you're up late studying for tests, wrapping up sports and managing your day-to-day schedule and friends. The difference here is that while you might feel "stressed," you're not overly worried or have fear about what's going to happen—just an overarching sense of being overwhelmed or having too much to do.

As Dr. Hisaka puts it, stress can best be described by prospect of task incompletion. If you're feeling stressed out, try deep breathing exercises and write down a to-do list in order of importance. Work your way through the list, crossing off items as you complete them and remember that you're capable of accomplishing everything you need to get done.

Shutterstock: Stressed woman with hands over her face

(via Shutterstock)



"By definition, anxiety is the presence of excessive worry and apprehension of expectations," Dr Hisaka explains. "Generalized anxiety (not to be confused with Generalized Anxiety Disorder) is having anxiety that is in proportion to the feared or unknown anticipation, response, event, or behavior."

Dr. Hisaka assures us that most people—teens and adults alike—experience some anxiety in their everyday lives. However the issue lies when anxiety levels become disproportionate to the situation causing the anxiety and therefore make it harder to function in day-to-day life.  For example, it's normal to feel anxious before your first day back to school, but if social functions give you an overwhelming amount of anxiety, to the point where you start avoiding situations because of those feelings, that's when it becomes an issue.

According to Dr. Hisaka, general anxiety in teens can look like "changes in social situations, isolation from others, irritability, restlessness, changes in appetite, behavioral issues, somatic responses (e.g., headache, stomach ache), physical changes (e.g., increased heartbeat, sweating), and decline in performance."

Unsplash: Woman looking stressed and leaning on hand

(via Unsplash)


Panic Attacks

Anyone who has suffered from a panic attack will tell you that it can be pretty terrible. "A panic attack is characterized by anxiety by perceived threat and physiological response in increased heartbeat and chest pain, impacting the nervous system," says Dr. Hisaka. "Often times, panic attacks can be compared to feeling 'suffocated,' accompanied by perceived or real restriction in ability to breath and/or dizziness."

Many who have had panic attacks say they can feel like you're having a heart attack and are best treated with slow deep breathing to regulate the heart rate. Where anxiety can bring on a lingering foggy feeling, panic attacks are typically intense and come in sharp, distinct waves, usually lasting 20-30 minutes, peaking around the 10 minute mark.

As Dr. Hisaka puts it, "Panic attacks are derived from an overload of anxiety on the nervous system." They can be caused by many things, but the underlying reason is usually severe stress. If you think you have had or are having a panic attack, definitely tell a parent or close teacher to see if you should seek medical treatment.

Whether you deal with stress, anxiety or a panic attack, the severity is the most important thing to take into consideration. Dr. Hisaka suggests that "if general anxiety becomes unmanageable, it may result in a clinical diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or in panic attacks if you experience severe physiological responses. Most individuals have general awareness about generalized anxiety and/or phobias (anxiety towards a specific person, place, experience, or thing). However, knowing which type of anxiety you may have or need for diagnostic clarification should typically be decided by a mental health care professional."

If you or someone you love is having a hard time with any of the above symptoms, you can reach out to the Panic Disorder Information Hotline: 1-800-64-PANIC (72642) at any time. 


And if you're feeling stress because of bullying, HERE's how to empower yourself to stand up to mean girls.