Debunking the Myth: Panic Attack

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I know I’ve heard it and I know I’ve said it: “Oh my goodness, I’m so stressed out, I’m going to have a panic attack.” Or, to one of my kids, “Get down from that ladder!  You’re going to give me a panic attack!” 

Hey, I’m just going to be honest.  Until a few years ago, I was mostly unaware of the effect my mental-illness-phrase-ignorance had on the people around me, and even more consequently, on myself.  As time ticks on, I learn a little more each day and realize again –  words matter.  The way I use words matters. The way we – as a society – use words matters – especially in the field of mental health counseling.

Some people appreciate a “label” as it helps them understand what’s going on behind the scenes mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Others run as far away from a label as they can; they may feel isolated and alone, like no one else in the world knows or understands their struggle.  We all just want to fit in with the rest of the world, to be included, to be known and loved for who we are, not just for what we do. Labels either help us toward that desire or harm us in the process, depending on each individual’s experiences.

In this blog series, my aim is to debunk some commonly misused terms as they pertain to mental health and awareness.  In the process, I’m reminding myself of the importance of seeing the people around me, really seeing them. Today, let’s learn about the truth behind the term panic attack.

What we think it is.  What do you think of when you hear someone say panic attack? My mind immediately goes to an image of someone experiencing one or more of the following: shallow breathing, physical shaking, walking in circles/pacing, loudly yelling or quietly muttering incomprehensible phrases, binge-eating, crying, or lying in the fetal position.  We tend to think panic attacks hit when there’s an important test coming up and we’re not sure how it’ll go.  We may think panic attacks only happen in the stark hallways of a psychiatric ward. Or maybe our vision of a panic attack is someone freezing in the middle of a crowd in a shopping mall and quickly sprinting out the doors as fast as possible.  The truth is, all of those scenarios may actually be indicative of a truly terrifying panic attack.  And the truth also is, all of those scenarios may be indicative of heightened anxiety and/or symptoms of panic.

As it boils down, all of the above experiences are valid and scary and deserving of empathy, support, and validation.  When we use terms in a way that invalidates someone’s true experience, it can be harmful. We all play a role in this, which is why education is important and valuable to our fellow human beings.  So, in a diagnostic, clinical sense, what is a panic attack?

What it really is.  According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a panic attack is an intense time of fear or discomfort characterized by at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying
  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate

A panic attack typically lasts for several minutes and may take hours to recover.  Someone experiencing a panic attack may have one in what is termed a “limited scope,” where less than four of the above symptoms are present.  Where panic attacks differ from what some may call anxiety attacks or symptoms of panic are in the level of impairment they cause in one’s life.  Panic attacks that cause significant disruption to daily functioning may be recurrent, unexpected, and cause a change in previously normative behavior such as shopping at the grocery store or talking in front of a small group of peers.

According to the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a person may be diagnosed with Panic Disorder if they spend one or more months fearing another attack after experiencing one prior and/or avoiding situations in fear that those situations may cause another panic attack. As you can probably see, this sort of situation can be very debilitating to an individual trying to remain employed, an engaged member of his or her family, and enjoy social outings with friends.

How do I know?  If you or someone you know is exhibiting specific periods of time with panic symptoms (such as those listed above), on a recurrent basis, it is best to discuss these concerns with a trusted health professional.  You may feel most comfortable starting this conversation with your primary care doctor or your counselor.  It may become apparent that you need more targeted and specific insight that would be best served by a psychiatrist.  Both primary care physicians and counselors can and do refer to psychiatrists as part of a holistic care team.

When the words are harmful. Because anxiety is often a normal experience in life, differentiating between panic attacks needing specific treatment and normal test nerves can be incredibly difficult and complex.  It is rarely helpful to use the term panic attack every time you feel or see symptoms of anxiety.  It is also not helpful to remain quiet when you or someone you love is clearly exhibiting serious signs of panic, even though it may seem weak or petty to reach out for help.  Each person is the expert on his or her own circumstances that elicit fear, anger, joy, sadness, or excitement. Yes, let’s all be honest with each other about what we experience in our lives. And yes, let’s all work together to use “hot topic words” in the most helpful way possible: out of respect for our neighbor.

I’ll see you back soon for a breakdown on another commonly misused term in the counseling world: trauma.

Resource links: https://www.verywellmind.com/diagnosing-panic-disorder-2583930, https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder-agoraphobia/symptoms  

Written by Lauren Eisleben