Is It a Panic Attack or Anxiety?
A therapist explains how to distinguish between the two
I was eight years old when the wrecking ball of doom came a-swinging. One minute I was riding my Huffy Sweet Thunder down the road, speed lifting my pigtails, adrenaline twisting the handlebars as I launched off the curb, bravado daring me to let go, as if to say, “Hell ya, I’m omnipotent.” And the next moment, invincibility took a digger. I landed with a face full of dirt and a mouthful of blood, heart on fire, trembling like a newborn in the cold, drenched as if I had just gone swimming. I can still feel my T-shirt clinging to my back.
I was in the world, but not of it. My mind was screaming, “run away…run away!” But my body was frozen. What exactly I was running from I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that some reality had just blindsided me, awakening a terror within.
After five or so minutes in Dante’s inferno, the terror gave way, and some sense of “normal” returned. I pushed myself up from the dirt, de-clung my shirt, took a deep breath, and tried to steady myself enough to ride. I was wobbly for a while — not only while peddling my bike, but also inside; my thoughts, feelings, and mood all were “off.”
Whether it was from fear, shame, confusion, or some combination thereof, I kept the whole disconcerting episode a secret for years to come, as well as a few other episodes in kind that followed.
The difference between a panic attack and anxiety
The distress I experienced that day on my bike was a classic panic attack.
Panic attacks are short bursts of intense fear often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, chest pain or shortness of breath, dizziness, or nausea, and mental symptoms; for instance, feeling like you’re losing control or going crazy, or are detached from yourself or your surroundings, or having a sudden fear that you will die. Typically, panic attacks last fewer than 30 minutes and can occur once or repeatedly, sometimes without reason. Panic attacks often send people to the ER because they can be easily mistaken for a heart attack.
Panic attacks often send people to the ER because they can be easily…