The term panic is one of those pieces of mental health jargon that has found its way into everyday language. Many of my clients tell me about times when they have experience “panic attacks” or “anxiety attack.” I thought that I would write a short blog to describe the “ingredients” of an actual panic attack (clinically speaking) compared to the experience of strong feelings of anxiety. I’ll also explain some of the key differences between the experience of being anxious and having a panic attack.

Anxiety

  1. Can last for a few moments to many hours.
  2. Is a normal human emotion that is adaptive and helpful when confronted with challenges or threats
  3. Is a complex experience that includes physical sensations, urges, thoughts, and sometimes images.
  4. Describes a wide range of experiences from mildly nervous to panic

Panic

  1. Usually last less than 15 minutes
  2. Often are experienced as coming from “out of the blue” although these experiences can sometimes be triggered by certain situations
  3. Always involve VERY intense feelings of anxiety (think “100” on a scale from 0 to 100) that peaks quickly
  4. Include many strong physical sensations such as heart racing, difficulty breathing, muscle tensions, discomfort in digestive organs, tingling in fingers and toes, hot/cold flashes, dizziness, seeing starts, and chest pain.
  5. The person having these experiences interprets them as a sign that something terrible is happening or about to happen such as a severe physical problem, death, or fainting.

 

What causes panic?

Panic is actually anxiety about anxiety. In other words, when someone is having a panic attack, their mind is interpreting the physical sensations of anxiety as dangerous. This kicks the “fight/fight” reaction into high gear, which creates more physical sensations that are are also interpreted as dangerous. The quick escalation of these sensations and the rapidly growing intensity are very uncomfortable and seem dangerous. It’s basically the same process that causes a “feedback loop” between a microphone and a speaker: the sound from the speaker is picked up by the mic, the sound is amplified and comes out the speaker which gets picked up by the mic, etc. The end result is a set of very intense physical sensations that are interpreted as evidence that some catastrophe is occurring such as a heart attack.

 

What can be done about panic?

Most people will experience at least one panic attack during their lifetime. When someone is having frequent panic attacks that are causing distress and/or making it hard to function, then he or she should talk with a mental health professional. It may also be a good idea to check with your medical provider as well to make sure there aren’t any medical issues. If a person is diagnosed with panic disorder, the best available treatment is something called “Panic Control Treatment” or PCT. This treatment involves learning about the fight/flight reaction, the factors that cause and maintain panic, and skills to challenge negative thinking and to reduce anxiety associated with physical sensations. So, in other words, PCT is a treatment that helps you to stop panicking about panic.

Need some help with anxiety or panic? Click here to set up a free consultation with Dr. Andy Santanello.