Many people may experience feelings of anxiety and moments of panic, but there are unique differences between an anxiety and panic attack.

Collyn Campbell, LCSW, CCTP, a licensed psychotherapist with Norman Regional Health System, says the term ‘anxiety attack’ is used as a non-clinical diagnosis to describe intense feelings of anxiety. 

“Anxiety is excessive worry, busy thoughts and mind, feeling edgy and/or irritable, difficulty concentrating or staying in the moment, muscle tension and sleep disturbances,” says Campbell. “The term ‘panic attack’ is a clinical diagnosis referring to much more intense feelings of anxiety, coupled with disturbing psychosomatic symptoms such as palpitations, a pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, and sensations of shortness of breath or smothering.” 

Additional symptoms can include chest pain or discomfort, abdominal distress, dizziness, paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations) and a fear of dying. Individuals may also experience derealization – feeling as though things aren’t real or like a dream – or depersonalization, feeling detached from one’s body. 

“Panic attacks have a beginning, middle and end, and usually last less than a half hour,” says Campbell. “Anxiety is more of a constant state of arousal in the brain and body, which seems to be connected to a dimmer switch that can intensify or lessen based on the moment at hand. People essentially use the phrase ‘anxiety attack’ when the proverbial dimmer switch is cranked all the way up.”

Ways to Cope

The good news, Campbell says, is there are many options for self-care and emotional self-regulation, as well as psychotherapy and psychotropic medications.

“There are countless self-care options, but my personal favorites … are: continuous prayer/mindfulness/meditation, breathing and grounding exercises utilizing all five senses, yoga/working out, eating right and getting the proper amount of sleep.”

Other practices include journaling, talking with a positive, non-judgemental friend and tapping using the Emotional Freedom Technique. 

“Anyone who knows me well has heard my accolades for tapping,” says Campbell. “Tapping is my favorite self-care tool because of its arousal-modulating properties and ability to create new neural networks within the brain between therapy sessions, which is where the healing magic of therapy takes place.”

When to Get Help

It’s important to pay attention to your emotions and how they’re impacting your daily life. 

“If you get that feeling where you’re so wound up that you can’t think straight or make appropriate decisions that align with your internal moral compass, it might be time to seek help,” she says. “If you are having ongoing, daily, repeated disturbances in your basic day-to-day functioning, then it’s definitely time. If you have even fleeting thoughts of wishing you could go to sleep and never wake up, or miraculously and unexpectedly die of natural causes, then it’s undoubtedly time. Fully formed suicidal thoughts, even just once? Call 911 immediately.”

People will often delay seeking help because they believe they can fix themselves, or others are telling them to just ‘snap out of it.’ People worry about the stigma associated with needing medication. Overall though, society seems to be changing its view on mental health and substance abuse treatment, says Campbell. She encourages people to be kind to themselves and treat anxiety like any other illness or injury.

“Shame and fear keep us locked into inadvertently ignorant thinking patterns, and we have to remember that ‘hurt people hurt people,’” she says. “If I’ve learned anything being a therapist for 20+ years, it’s that if we want something to change, we have to change ourselves. 

“Therapy works. Medicine works. But if we don’t want to do the work and believe that we have the capacity to change, then we absolutely never will. We have to do the work. We have to know that we deserve happiness and peace just as every other human does. And if someone just read this and realizes they themselves believe that they are not deserving of love, peace, happiness, or forgiveness – then this is for them.”

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