The differences between panic and anxiety attacks and how I deal with them

There are some overlaps in terms of symptoms between panic attacks and anxiety, yet they are both very different.

The symptoms that overlap include a rapid heartbeat, dizziness and shortness of breath.

Everyone can have panic attacks and anxiety because they are part of our protective system and are a human reaction to fear. It might be better to see a doctor if you have them frequently. Let me tell you a bit about the differences in both symptoms and what they are caused by. And allow me to share with you a few of my personal tips and tricks on how to deal with them when they occur.

I’ve been suffering from OCD, PTSD and depression for a very long time. They go hand in hand with anxiety and panic attacks. They don’t occur that often anymore as they used to, but it still sucks when it happens.

The differences

Anxiety and panic attacks may feel the same for many people and they are often used interchangeably as if they are actually the same thing, yet there are some subtle differences to help identify them.

A panic attack is a term used to describe the features of as a panic disorder, although panic attacks can occur in other psychiatric disorders as well and it is also possible that you have no disorder and also experience a panic attack.

Anxiety is used to describe a feature in several mental illnesses such as OCD, anxiety disorders, PTSD, Social anxiety, agoraphobia,..

A panic attack is an intense and sudden feeling of fear, unsafety and nervousness. The symptoms are quite heavy and can cause you to feel tired and off for the rest of the day. They occur out of the blue, without you even noticing of being in a state of fear, but can be caused by an immediate trigger. They occur both expected and unexpected because sometimes it happens and other times it doesn’t. But I know they can occur when being in crowd, when someone touches me unexpectedly, when I’m in a store that is more crowded than expected, when there are multiple noises, when being in a group where the tension is high.

The symptoms are:
  •          An accelerated heart rate
  •      Difficult breathing and a feeling of smothering
  •         Chest pain
  •          Nausea
  •          Feeling dizzy
  •      A depersonalized feeling (as if you’re not you there in that exact moment)
  •          Fear of losing control and going crazy
  •          Fear of dying
  •          Tingling in the hands
  •          Chills
  •          Sweating
  •          Shaking

Anxiety or “anxiety attacks” happen over a longer period of time and are often caused by worrying too much and having a feeling that you’re in danger or even because you have a feeling of being potentially in danger. This stress builds up until you reach a point where it’s too much, which can feel like an attack.
Even though the symptoms of anxiety are quite similar to those of a panic attack, they are mostly less intense. The symptoms of anxiety are usually persistent and last longer, from days up to months.

The symptoms are:
  •          Fatigue
  •         Difficulty concentrating
  •         Being irritable
  •         Increased heart rate
  •         Shortness of breath
  •         Feeling dizzy
  •         Feeling restless
  •         Disturbed sleep/difficulty sleeping
  •         Muscle tension

Treatments of anxiety or panic attacks

Effective treatment is available. I went through therapy and use medication. I also have some self-help techniques, because even though my panic attacks and anxiety are less present and occur less often that they used to, it still happens that I get a panic attack in public or when I lay in bed at night. It happens that I go through a period where I’m in a high level of anxiety and that life is a lot more difficult to me. And then these techniques come in handy:

I focus on deep breathing

One breath should be 10 seconds long. This can mean you can inhale for 5 seconds and exhale for 5, inhale for 6 and exhale for 4, or whatever feel comfortable. Just focus on the breathing and it will calm you down. Count as you do it.

I sing

I go back to a song where I know the lyrics from. I recite it in my head. I sing it silently or even just think of the words. Thinking of what comes next in the song makes you forget about what you’re panicking about in this moment.

I sum up the things I see in front of me

When I lay in bed and I feel a panic attack coming up, I focus on the things in my room. I tell what I see, what color it has, what it’s made of. Then I go to the next thing. This helps me realize I’m only in my room.

When in a crowd, I focus on one person and ignore the rest

Not long ago, I went out to grab some coffee. A large group of women entered the place and came sitting next to us. They started chatting louder and louder until I had the feeling that I was in a crowd I couldn’t get out of. I started hyperventilating and sweating and I felt the panic attack creeping up on me. I focused on one person in the room and tried to listen only to their voice. It may seem like a creepy thing to do, but it helps you with getting your focus off of the people who are disturbing your peace and lets you go back to a peaceful and silent mind by only focusing on one person talking.

I meditate and put my attention to a flame of a candle, or a spot on the wall

I started meditating by focusing on a lit candle. I focused on the flame, which is very psychedelic and will put you in some kind of trance. You may remember doing this as a kid and almost drooling because you were so focused on the flame. You need to go back to that state. That’s a state of inner peace and silence. You can do this in a crowded subway by focusing on a poster or focusing on a spot on the wall when in a waiting room.

I throw water in my face on focus on the feeling

Let water run over your body, or even your face if you’re not in the position to shower or take a bad. Feel the water running over you and focus on that for a while. It’s a calming feeling and by focusing on the water, you’re not focusing on your thoughts.

I live in the moment

Living in the moment has helped me a lot. It helps me realize I’m not in a dangerous place, there’s nothing threatening happening to me right now and the chance that I will be in danger soon is very little. I do not think about the past and I don’t live in the future, which only leaves me with the present. And at this moment I’m alive and I’m safe. There’s nothing else I need to worry about.

If you’re worried about your mental health because you’re experiencing panic attacks or anxiety a lot, please talk to your doctor. Help is available and being in a bad mental state is definitely nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all going through or own things in life and we need to take care of ourselves.

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