What is the difference between anxiety, fear and panic attacks?
It is very easy to mistake anxiety for panic. So what are anxiety and panic attacks? Anxiety is characterized by excessive fear, physiological symptoms and behavioral dysfunction. There are clear differences between fear, anxiety and panic attacks, although they are often used interchangeably.
Fear is the emotion we feel in response to certain real or perceived threatening stimuli. Fear is one of the six basic emotions, along with anger, disgust, surprise, sadness and happiness.
Anxiety is the anticipation of a future threat. This anticipation contains cognitive distortions which are common patterns of thinking, that usually generate the feeling of anxiety.
A panic attack is the sudden feeling of fear or terror, accompanied by physical symptoms such as palpitations, difficulty breathing, drowning, dizziness. Often, a panic attack is followed by a persistent fear of not having another attack.
Unfortunately, due to the stigma related to seeing a psychologist, most of the patients see a professional when their symptoms have reached a peak that they can no longer manage. Comparing anxiety with a physical condition, over time if left untreated, anxiety can get worse and can lead to panic or other complications.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Let’s look at the case of Veronica, a young mum suffering from anxiety. Veronica looked fragile and her upper body seemed very tense when I first saw her at the office. Her shoulders were slightly raised as if she wanted to protect her neck, she was looking down.
Sometimes the body is so tense that patients may experience muscle pain due to their anxiety.
The anxiety and panic attack she suffered in the last year has interfered with her ability to work and continue her studies. As a result, she spent this year at home isolating herself from the world and having frequent panic attacks. The last panic attack a week ago was so strong that her husband called for an ambulance.
“Most of the day I feel I have an upset stomach and I am very restless. Simply for no reason. I feel something bad is about to happen and my heart is racing. I can’t fall asleep easily at night. I can’t even remember when I managed to sleep 8 hours straight.” Veronica tells me.
Other symptoms of anxiety are:
- muscle tension
- digestive discomfort
- problems with sleep
How does a panic attack feel?
Sitting on the edge of the couch, her back straight and her hands meticulously placed on her lap, she continues: “I was very scared. I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe properly and I was suffocating … it was like I was in a dream. It didn’t seem real to me what was happening. I was trembling, I was all sweating and I was thinking – God, am I going to die now?”
She told me that the panic attack also has other effects on her body such as chest pain, which makes patients believe that they have a heart attack, numbness in limbs, cold and hot sweats.
When she was consulted by the emergency doctor she was told that she had a panic attack and was given calcium and some vitamins. She was advised to do some more detailed blood tests. The tests were all good despite all the symptoms she had.
Although a panic attack is very intense and it has various symptoms perceived as threatening, no one has died from an attack. It goes away after only a few seconds or minutes.
How do you treat anxiety and panic attacks?
Veronica wanted to know what anxiety treatment entails. She refused to go to a psychiatrist, although for her anxiety it is indicated she takes medication. She thinks that taking pills will make her addicted and she wants to avoid this at any cost. She wants to use the psychotherapy approach to anxiety.
Medication is recommended in cases of anxiety and panic, this recommendation should not be avoided. At the same time the patient cannot be forced to take medicines if he doesn’t want to.
In the case of Veronica, psychotherapy supported by the drug treatment can help her recover faster, reintegrate in society and resume her previous activities: work, studies and meetings with friends. But due to her refusal to take drugs, we will rely on psychotherapy, which is sufficient for the treatment of the anxiety disorder she suffers.
The efficiency of psychotherapy in the treatment of anxiety has been scientifically proven over the years through a multitude of studies (studies – see pages 12-20).
Integrative psychotherapy provides a highly effective working field for anxiety, using specific methods to help the patient feel better and improve their quality of life.
In therapy, patients learn how to effectively manage stress in their lives, relax and manage their thoughts that cause them anxiety. Thus they can resume their normal life activities and reintegrate into their daily lives. Most importantly, psychotherapy treats anxiety in depth, discovering and healing the causes that determine the onset of anxiety. This results in favorable long-term patient outcomes.
BONUS: I invite you to read this article where you will discover three simple actions to help with anxiety wherever you are.
- Anxiety is an emotion we feel in anticipation of something bad happening. There are specific physical symptoms that describe anxiety: sweaty hands, or excessive sweating, trembling, elevated heart rate, digestive discomfort
- Anxiety often gets confused with fear which is an emotion we feel when the threat is in our proximity.
- A panic attack is a sudden and intense feeling of terror coupled with other intense physical symptoms: cold/hot sweats, numbness, chest pain, sensation of choking or running out of breath, breathing faster than normal.
- To treat anxiety and panic attacks, people are recommended to seek psychotherapy and sometimes pharmacotherapy.
***Veronica is a fictional name used in this article.