How to tell a panic attack from a phobia: Two criteria to use

If you have a common phobia, like spiders or flying or dogs, then you are likely to know what that is. However, some less common phobias (fear of people, open spaces, air, touching, blushing, and feelings, to name just a few) may be mistaken for panic attacks and vice versa.


While phobia and panic attacks have a lot in common, it’s best to know what exactly happens to you, as it’s key to success in solving the issue. Albert Einstein once said that "a problem defined is a problem half solved", and I couldn’t agree more. 

I’d like to give you two simple criteria that will help you to better understand what you feel, so you could seek relevant help.

Phobias and panic attacks have some symptoms in common, hence they may be easy to confuse. They both may provoke:

  • intense fear
  • shortness of breath
  • heartbeat or heart palpitations 
  • vertigo and/or loss of mental sharpness
  • shivering

Those physical sensations are launched by our limbic system – that’s a structure in our brain that is responsible for emotional reactions. Evolutionary, it appeared long before the cortex that is responsible for logical reasoning. That’s why it’s more powerful and acts a lot quicker. 

The main part of the limbic system is a gland, called amygdala. If it perceives a threat, it activates a threat response, which can feel like the symptoms described above, and it’s true for both phobias and panic attacks.

So how can you tell the difference?

Criteria one: Trigger

Understanding if there is anything that triggers your symptoms holds the first key to the difference between a phobia and a panic attack. Two scenarios are possible here:

  • Scenario 1: you experience the symptoms in similar situations and you can think of a specific trigger. You may feel worried or uncomfortable even thinking of that situation or trigger. 

That means that you probably have a phobia and if need be, you can manage your physical and emotional state by avoiding the trigger. It may be difficult or impractical (think people, cats, dogs, confined spaces, flying…) but it’s doable. You have a sense of control, to a degree.

  • Scenario 2: you can’t identify a specific trigger. You may be at home doing the dishes after a lovely family dinner, walking a dog in a park, or chatting to a friend, but the reaction kicks in in the absence of obvious triggers.

Then you are likely to have a panic attack. In fact, true panic attacks tend to happen in quiet, peaceful situations, leaving sufferers confused and thinking that something horrible must be happening to them.

This brings us to the second criterion.

Criteria two: Feeling of “not existing” or “dying”

The other criterion is how exactly you feel during an episode. Panic attacks have two distinct feelings that phobias don’t have.

Panic attacks sufferers often feel:

  • De-realisation/ de-personalisation, like they don’t exist. It’s a very strange feeling that is hard to describe but, if you’ve even had it, you know what I’m talking about.
  • Fear that they may be dying from a stroke or a heart attack. As the episode is intense, has no obvious trigger and a strong heartbeat is present, it’s easy to confuse it with a heart attack. If a sense of confusion or de-realisation is present, it provokes fear of stroke happening. That very thought – I may be dying! – exacerbates the panic attack even further, adding to suffering.

Now hopefully you have more clarity about what you experienced, and that means that it’s easier for you to seek help.

Remember, a problem defined is a problem half-solved!

Both phobias and panic attacks are well understood and various methods are available to help you, from coping techniques to deep analytical approaches aimed at dealing with the root cause.

If you'd like to find out more about how hypnotherapy can help you with phobias or panic attacks, visit Hypnotherapy Directory for more information and guidance or contact me via my profile below. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, W1H
Written by Katerina Furman, Advanced Clinical Hypnotherapist MSc ADPR DHyp MBSCH MBPsS
London, W1H

Katerina works in an analytical and dynamic modality, believing that the key to our well-being lies in our emotional states. She uses a combination of hypnotherapy, emotion-oriented psychotherapy and EMDR to help you get the best and lasting results for your wellbeing. Katerina works online and face-to-face with clients all over the world.

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