In an ongoing attempt to use my PhD in Neuroscience to explain Neuroscience stuff to non-scientists, I’d like to discuss two very commonly misused terms: anxiety attacks and panic attacks. They are not the same thing, but many people use the terms interchangeably.
However, the two are similar in some ways: Anxiety attacks and panic attacks both consist of a potent and psychologically and physiologically upsetting set of reactions in your body. Your mind races, you have worries and fear (sometimes about something concrete, sometimes about nothing in particular, it seems), and your body sends out alarm signals such as an increased heart rate, sweating and trembling. (Yes, these are also the symptoms of being close to someone you are falling in love with; I’ll save the explanation for that overlap for another time!)
The way anxiety attacks and panic attacks differ is that panic attacks tend to carry with them the symptom of “dissociation,” a clinical term that means that you experience a very tangible sense that you have left your body. Panic attacks can be so disturbing and powerful that your consciousness is altered and you may experience what seem like very real fears of dying, suffocating or losing control of your body and mind.
Panic attacks are characterized by an intense and sometimes crippling fear that more attacks will come, which does not happen with anxiety attacks. Ironically, this fear can often lead to more attacks; this ‘loop’ of fear, anxiety, and panic is distinct to panic attacks and does not occur if you have a ‘standard’ anxiety attack. Panic Disorder is the diagnosis that comes about when you have acute panic attacks characterized by a variety of physiological and psychological features. If preoccupation about the attacks and fears about more attacks continue for more than a month after an attack, and if you start showing behaviors which negatively impact you and which are only present because of these fears and preoccupations, you likely would meet the criteria for a Panic Disorder diagnosis.
Both anxiety attacks and panic attacks are scary. Both are significant. Both can benefit from various treatments such as talk therapy/psychotherapy (which seeks to get to the root of the trigger for your attacks), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which aims to control certain thoughts and behaviors and replace them with more productive substitutes), or medication in certain cases (which can re-establish a neurochemical profile that is not so delicate in terms of being triggered.)
Discussing panic or anxiety with a psychologist or psychiatrist or with a general practitioner is a smart thing to do, especially if your attacks are getting more frequent, more intense or more debilitating. Medications have side effects and are not for everyone, and the best person to assess your clinical history is someone with training in psychiatry or psychology.
Find support for both panic attacks and anxiety attacks on NAMI.org.
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