The purpose of this article is to distinguish between anxiety and panic attacks.
In thinking about how I wanted to present it though, I decided to add a third piece into the mix: fear. Let’s, in fact, start with fear versus anxiety. As with anxiety, fear is a feeling that every human being experiences, at one time or another. When fear or anxiety takes hold, we are all likely to experience symptoms like nervousness/jitteriness, racing and/or obsessive negative thoughts. Especially, “what-if” and worst-case-scenario thinking, impaired concentration, and to varying degrees, physical/bodily sensations like heart racing, shallow breathing, palms sweating, and tightness in the chest.
The key factor distinguishing fear from anxiety can be summed up as the likely rationality versus the likely irrationality of these sets of symptoms.
On the fear front, the symptoms listed above are triggered by the anticipation of what could be an actual danger or threat to physical or emotional safety. Examples include undergoing tests for a possibly cancerous lump in your breast, walking down a dark street and seeing a suspicious stranger walking toward you, being somewhere where you suddenly hear gunshots, or finding out that there are going to be a significant number of job layoffs at your place of employment in the very near future. All of these situations involve an anticipated worrisome event that has a real possibility of actually occurring, and therefore, the symptoms are rational.
In contrast, when the symptoms surround anticipation of an event that is not likely to happen (not an impossibility, but an unlikelihood), in this framework we are talking the irrationality of anxiety rather than the rationality of fear. Examples include: worrying that you are going to do poorly on an important exam when you are in fact an intelligent person who studied hard for the exam, feeling mild turbulence while on a plane yet worrying deeply that the plane nonetheless is going to crash at any moment, convincing yourself that your significant other is about to reject you in spite of all of your evidence to the contrary, and worrying that you are going to lose your job when you have been repeatedly reassured that you are performing very well and are important to the company you work for.
Now we move to panic attacks.
Simply stated, panic is the extreme of what can be either fear or anxiety. During a panic attack, all of the symptoms listed above can become so overwhelming that you can feel immobilized and frozen in place. Accompanying this can be the extremely disconcerting thought that you are “going crazy” or having a heart attack. A panic attack can vary in terms of its duration: it might subside in less than 30 seconds, or unfortunately, it may continue for many minutes or longer. The longer it lasts, the longer it will take to return to a normal level of functioning. In a state of anxiety or fear in contrast, as distressing as these feelings may be, chances are you will still be able to function sufficiently enough to not become overwhelmed and immobilized.
Last but not least, I want to emphasize that whether we are talking about fear, anxiety, or panic, what all of these feelings share in common is that they should never be judged as signs of abnormality or weakness. Instead, they all reflect a state of being HUMAN. They’re disturbing and very stressful feelings yes, but human nonetheless.
You can read further about how self-sabotage can actually trigger anxiety if not panic at times in my book, “Your Self-Sabotaging Inner Bully: Standing Up to It Once and For All!”
I look forward to connecting with you!