Anxiety is a normal part of life and can be healthy when it’s perceived in a way that stimulates you to reach your goals. Healthy anxiety helps facilitate adaptive functioning. For example, the person who is anxious about speaking to a large group may rehearse his speech a little more and do better during the presentation. However, when the anxiety interferes with the person’s ability to perform and limits his/her ability to adapt and function in ways most other people can, then the anxiety becomes unhealthy. If this is the case, the sufferer is likely experiencing the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. There are many different kinds of anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and panic disorder. Experiencing a heightened level of anxiety is a hallmark of all anxiety disorders, but experiencing panic attacks is not a requirement for being diagnosed with any anxiety disorder besides panic disorder.
What’s the difference between experiencing anxiety and panic attacks?
Some anxiety disorders can include panic attacks as a symptom, but panic and anxiety are not one and the same. Although panic and anxiety are often used interchangeably, the main difference between anxiety and panic is the duration and intensity. A panic attack often has an unknown onset, which means that it tends to come out of the blue! For example, you may be checking out at the same grocery store you have been to 100 times, and all of a sudden you start to experience dizziness, chest pain, sweating, and chills. People who suffer from panic attacks initially think they are experiencing a medical emergency and may rush to the hospital. Panic attacks tend to reach their peak at ten minutes, but duration varies and some have noted hour-long attacks. Unlike panic attacks, anxiety generally intensifies over a longer period of time and is closely linked to a specific event that feels threatening. For example, you may have been promoted to project manager at work and the new level of responsibility has led you to have a constant level of worry. Anxiety has similar symptoms to panic attacks, but such symptoms are generally less intense and more persistent—lasting days, weeks, months, or even years.
How does a panic attack come about?
Panic attacks result from a misinterpretation of harmless physical symptoms. It all comes down to perspective. Those who suffer from panic attacks and chronic anxiety tend to be internally focused and hypersensitive to physical changes. For example, a non-sufferer may notice that his/her fingers are tingling, but process the event without paying a great deal of attention to his/her fingers. Soon, the tingling subsides and the person continues with his/her day to day activities. On the other hand, a sufferer notices tingling and starts to question what this means, telling him/herself that something horrible is about to happen. The thought that something catastrophic is looming is what triggers the panic attack. You can think of a panic attack in terms of a mental hijacking. The protective part of your brain essentially goes into over drive and sends off warning signals that prepare the body for fight or flight. Soon, one symptom turns into many more, the brain interprets this as scary, and the thought that something bad is happening becomes reinforced, thus giving birth to a panic attack.
Can I change my perspective?
Changing years of internalized maladaptive thinking takes time and effort, but it’s possible! You can change the way you respond to your thoughts and live a more grounded and satisfying life. The mind and body are not separate entities, but rather interconnected systems that feed off one another. Panic attacks and anxiety feed off of the imbalance between the body and mind. Once we begin to acknowledge that most of the suffering we experience results from what we tell ourselves, we are able to shift our prism of understanding to include compassion for ourselves and others. It is through a cultivation of compassion that you can begin to question your self-defeating beliefs and teach your brain to respond more skillfully to physical symptoms and the brain’s warning alarms.
Mindfulness integrated cognitive behavioral therapy helps teach you how to process your feelings and bodily sensations more kindly and realistically. Then, you are able to practice skillful responses during times of distress that help stop reinforcing catastrophic thinking and encourage adaptive processing and responding.