Difference Between Nervous Breakdown and Panic Attack

Main Difference – Nervous Breakdown vs Panic Attack

Nervous breakdown and panic attack are two common psychological scenarios which are caused by apparent stressful factors and increased incidence of competitive personalities associated with the fast moving world. The main difference between nervous breakdown and panic attack is that nervous breakdown refers to an acute attack of anxiety resulting from a sudden and extreme incident or prolonged stress whereas panic attack refers to a sudden peak of overwhelming anxiety and fear.

This article explains, 

1. What is a Nervous Breakdown? – Definition, Cause, Signs and Symptoms, and Treatment 

2. What is a Panic Attack? – Definition, Cause, Signs and Symptoms, and Treatment 

3. What is the difference between Nervous Breakdown and Panic Attack?Difference Between Nervous Breakdown and Panic Attack - infographic

What is a Nervous Breakdown

Nervous breakdown is defined as an acute attack of anxiety which could possibly disrupt an individual’s daily life. Being a type of anxiety disorder, this can often result from a sudden and extreme incident or prolonged stress. A person affected by a nervous breakdown will feel as if he is losing control of his own feelings, giving rise to a combination of stress, anxiety, nervousness, fear and worry. Other associated signs and symptoms include sweating, crying, rapid mood swings and thoughts, muscle tension, trembling, difficulty in breathing, raced heartbeat, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, irritability and insomnia.

In contrast to panic disorders which usually occur suddenly without any obvious reason, nervous breakdowns often follow one or many stressful events, as a response to a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters.

People who have a previous history of any anxiety disorder and that who experience sudden negative life events are at a high risk of going through this types of episodes.

As far as the treatment is concerned, nervous breakdowns can be managed successfully by general lifestyle modifications including relaxation techniques, stress management, talk therapy, meditation, music therapy, hobbies, etc. which will ultimately relax a person, making him strong enough to face any negative scenario. Recurrent attacks can be treated with anxiolytic drugs and psychotherapy.

More importantly, it is advisable to seek prompt medical advice if a person develops any self-harming or suicidal feelings.

Main Difference - Nervous Breakdown vs Panic Attack

What is Panic Attack

A panic attack is a sudden peak of overwhelming anxiety and fear which can happen to anyone at any time. Even though the exact cause of this condition is not known yet, genetics, trauma, negative life events, stressful conditions (having a baby, new job) and medical health issues such as hyperthyroidism, hypoglycemia, mitral valve prolapse, withdrawal of certain drugs and abuse of cocaine and amphetamines have been identified as triggers for panic attacks.

Most panic attacks develop abruptly and reach a severe surge within 10 minutes and tend to end within 20 to 30 minutes or rarely last more than one hour. An individual affected by a full-blown panic attack will experience a combination of signs and symptoms including hyperventilation or shortness of breath, increased heart rate, palpitation, chest pain and discomfort, trembling, choking sensation, feeling detached from the environment, sweating, dizziness, numbness,  nausea, gastric disturbances, hot or cold flashes and a fear of dying or losing control.

A complete medical history of the patient together with a questionnaire about signs and symptoms can be used to diagnose this condition. Panic attacks can be successfully treated with self-help strategies and various therapeutic sessions.

Lifestyle modifications such as avoidance of nicotine, alcohol,  or caffeine, proper control of feelings and relaxation techniques ( breathing, Yoga) will help to cope up with mild panic attacks whereas severe recurrent episodes can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy with or without drugs like anti-depressants or Benzodiazepines.Difference  Between Nervous Breakdown and Panic Attack

Difference Between Nervous Breakdown and Panic Attack


A nervous breakdown describes a broader range of signs and symptoms associated with nervous exhaustion or burnout, followed by a period of heavy stressful conditions, severe depression or anxiety.

In contrast to that, a panic attack is defined as a sudden, severe episode which comes when least expected, with bouts of fear and anxiety which arises without any early warning. Lasting for up to about 20 minutes, it can result in sweaty palms, raced heart beat and shortness of breath associated with general anxiety and nervousness. A person may feel as if he is going to face death, even if there is no such danger present. In fact, these individuals with panic attacks are often found in emergency units, self-suspected as a possible cardiac arrest without any such scenario.


Nervous breakdowns are less intense than panic attacks but tend to last longer, sometimes resulting in a bedridden individual who is unable to perform day to day activities due to long term mental instability associated with nervousness and anxiety.

Signs and Symptoms

Nervous breakdowns are often associated with signs and symptoms related to depression such as social avoidance, crying, self-harming thoughts and sleep disturbances (insomnia).

Panic attacks often give rise to sympathetic, fight or flight responses including increased heart rate, trembling body and chest pain due to tensed chest muscles.

Image Courtesy: 

“9 of 365 Frustration” By Tanya Little – Flickr: 9 of 365 ~ Frustration, (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Commons Wikimedia

“513528” (Public Domain) via Pixbay

About the Author: Embogama

Embogama is a passionate freelance writer for several years. Her areas of interest include general medicine, clinical medicine, health and fitness, Ayurveda medicine, psychology, counseling and piano music