The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting over 18% of the population. That’s a staggering 40 million adults in the nation and an estimated 264 million that are six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who don’t suffer from such disorders, and yet under 37% of those people receive treatment for what are considered highly treatable illnesses.
But perhaps one of the barriers to getting 100% of those people the appropriate treatment is that there’s confusion as to what we’re actually suffering from, often referring to anxiety and panic attacks interchangeably without recognizing that they, in fact, have entirely different meanings.
“When someone says they’re having an anxiety attack, it’s more a colloquial term, but usually what they are referring to is that they’re anxious about something that’s happening, whether it be with school, work or your relationships,” says Christina Boisseau, an associate professor of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. “There is an identifiable stressor. And when people get really anxious or worried, they can experience heightened physical symptoms of anxiety such as their heart racing and chest tightening.”
Here, anxiety is defined as something a person can pinpoint a cause or trigger for. It’s often stress created in anticipation of or as a reaction to an identifiable source, while panic attacks often have none of these factors. Further, panic attacks come with a list of uncontrollable physical symptoms.
“Panic attacks are unexpected rushes of intense fear or discomfort that come with some scary symptoms ― your heart starts racing, you’re dizzy, you feel flushed or you get a sudden shortness of breath,” she said. “Symptoms peak very sharply within a matter of minutes and don’t usually last that long.”
The American Psychiatric Association characterizes a panic attack by having four or more of these symptoms:
-Palpitations or a pounding heart
-Muscle trembling or shaking
-Shortness of breath or sensations of smothering
-Chest pain or discomfort
-Nausea or abdominal distress
-Dizziness or feeling lightheaded and faint
-Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (feeling detached from yourself)
-Fears of losing control or going crazy (literally feeling as if you might lose your mind)
-Fear of dying
-Numbness, tingling sensations
-Chills or hot flashes
Now, while almost anybody will have a panic attack at least once in their life, regular occurrences of them may mean you have a panic disorder, which affects a much smaller percentage of the population.
“Panic disorder is basically a fear of fear,” Boisseau said. “People who have panic disorder are afraid of the physical feelings of panic itself. They are afraid something is wrong with them like they are dying or ‘going crazy.’ Essentially they worry about the implications of having a panic attack.”
So, do these two things need to be treated differently? According to Boisseau, the treatment methods are often quite similar. Simply being aware of which you are afflicted by can be a major step up in tackling it.