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Touching Base: The Difference Between Panic and Anxiety

Anxiety is something that we, as humans, need to survive. Anxiety speaks to your body and tells you when to freeze, to flee, or to fight - and mobilizes your body in response quickly, without thinking. It seems counterintuitive (considering the rise of anxiety disorders in public light), but anxiety is a natural chemical that our brains produce, essentially teaching us how to navigate threats in our day to day lives.

Anxiety itself is an evolutionary tactic that we, as a species, have developed over roughly 200,000 years of existence. Our brains are constantly perceiving, and assessing, everything going on around us - and sometimes, imaginary situations as well. Being more likely than not to categorize something as 'a threat', as to not miss any potential damage later, coupled with the circumstance that you are 'threatened' by things that are not real, it is understandable how your brain can begin to turn that natural anxiety into something more hazardous. Your brain doesn't have an 'OFF' switch, and elevated levels of anxiety can cause issues with avoidance and overall distress in your life.

Now, this isn't to say that you shouldn't feel anxious. All humans experience anxiety, especially at times where they are going through stressful events. This could be a heavy medical diagnosis, social events, public speaking, etc - there are plenty of common triggers that can cause someone to experience anxious feelings. However, sometimes life events can trigger anxiety disorders and panic disorders as well.


So which is which?

Standard Anxiety Levels: Natural, understandable anxiety about a regular situation in life. Maybe you are questioning the validity of the recent election's political choices, or you see threats of layoffs, or even you have a big deadline set tomorrow and still have some final work to do. The level of anxiety you feel in these situations is normal - every human experiences these!


Concerning Anxiety Levels: Laying awake at night with your mind racing, worries compounding around "What if...?". You can't get any rest but you are exhausted, and wish you could turn your mind off for five minutes. Worrying is something that counts as 'avoidance' toward anxiety, even though it often times just heightens the anxiety in the first place. It's extremely hard to stop worrying! Often times when you are stuck in this cycle, you can utilize mindfulness and acceptance-based behaviors to help.


Full Blown Panic: Whether knowing or not knowing what the triggering moment was, you can feel your chest tightening and your heart racing. You can't quite figure it out but you have an overwhelming urge to flee, to run from this situation and not look back. You can hear your blood in your ears, your hands are clammy, your heart is thrumming loudly. Is this a heart attack? No, this is a panic attack. They can come out of the blue, with no real trigger or warning. People who often experience panic attacks, which are much rarer and much more severe than their counterparts in anxiety attacks, keep an eye out for the physical triggers that can let them know a panic attack is setting in. Often times, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, and numbness are all signs that a panic attack is in the onset. Because of this, those suffering often avoid places where an attack has happened in the past - some do not come out of the house at all. Luckily, panic disorder has history of being highly treatable with exposure therapies.


One of the key differences between anxiety attacks and panic attacks is the triggers/moments leading up to the attack. Anxiety attacks have triggers - you can anticipate it coming because you know the circumstances - example being, you know you get so anxious you have to leave to breathe when you boss raises his voice, and he just yelled in the team meeting. But with panic disorders, the triggers are harder to spot - if they even exist at all.

Sometimes the symptoms and associated triggers can be treated with use of medication to adjust serotonin receptors, etc., but often times it is a better bet to seek professional therapy and utilize exposure and mindfulness methods. Both panic and anxiety disorders are treatable and manageable - even when they feel like they are completely out of your control.

Do you think you have anxiety/panic disorder, or were you recently diagnosed? You are not alone. Panic disorder, being a more intense version of anxiety disorder, affects just under 5% of adults during their lifetime. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that roughly 40 Million US adults experience significant anxiety every year, with nearly 30% of adults experiencing clinically meaningful anxiety symptoms.


The math comes out to pretty much 1 in 3 people.