A Panic Attack May Not Be What You Think

I’m going to explain to you what a panic attack is.

It does not just mean experiencing a great fear or being terrified irrespective of circumstances. I’ve experienced two bouts of panic attacks in my life. I had to take Xanax to counter the attacks until time worked its magic, and the attacks ceased.

A panic attack is not a feeling of panic in the face of a real danger. If you feel something is threatening is happening, and you feel panic, this is a normal response to the threat. If you can remove the threat, and your panic subsides, this is also the sign that what you are experiencing is not a panic attack.

“I was watching this thing on TV and I felt I was having a panic attack. Then I turned the TV off, and I was okay.”

What you were experiencing wasn’t a panic attack, it was a normal reaction to something your brain found threatening, out there, in the world.

See, a panic attack is an irrational sense of fear, when there is nothing out there that can ostensibly harm you. There is nothing that you can remove from your environment to make the panic go away. A panic attack is your body thinking that there’s a threat, when there is no threat. No amount of reassurance will make the panic attack go away, because it is irrational.

A panic attack is very different from the first scenario I gave you above, because there is nothing short of taking medicines that will make it go away. Breathing exercises and moderate it, but they won’t eliminate it. How do I know? Again, I’ve had two bouts of panic attacks. I could look around me, and see there was nothing threatening in my environment, but my sense of panic did not go away. I could reason that there was no threat, but this rationality found no purchase in the irrationality of the panic attack.

“But I was able to make my panic go away with…”

If it was anything short of taking an anxiolytic, what you experienced was plain old panic, and not a panic attack. Using the incorrect language, and insisting that your plain old panic is a panic attack, is harmful in much the same that insisting that someone who experiences a bout of anxiety on a date is suffering from social anxiety, or that someone who is sad at the death of a pet is experiencing depression.

People normally rebound from their anxiety or their sadness. One sure sign that what you are dealing with is not social anxiety or depression is that you can easily fix the problem. People with social anxiety, for instance, will ruminate before and after the event. People experiencing depression won’t be pulled out of depression by a joke.

It is harmful in the same way that saying “we’re all a little autistic is harmful.” It is a way to minimize a real problem, a problem that cannot be merely fixed by reorganizing your world.


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