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I can still remember the first time I had a panic attack. The shortness of breath was intense, like I was being smothered in the open air. My chest was tight, like it was being squeezed in a vice. There are some details I can’t remember, like my exact age, but I must have been in middle school. It was on a camping trip, and I slept badly each night. Eventually that sleep deprivation let to an intense feeling of vulnerability, coupled with an adolescent’s escalating knowledge of tension in the world and my anxiety mounted to a full blown attack. I used to refer to that night as an anxiety attack, but since then I’ve learned the difference between a panic attack vs anxiety attack.
Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack
The thing is, medically, there’s no such thing as an anxiety attack. I know, it’s kinda shocking, isn’t it? I’ve heard that term all my life, and used it repeatedly. It’s true though. The manual they use to diagnose mental illness has an entry for panic attack, but not “anxiety attack.” That’s because a panic attack is an event, usually lasting under 30 minutes, but anxiety tends to be longer lasting.
But they can be related. If you are feeling anxiety over something specific, over the course of days or hours it can intensify until a panic attack is triggered. Sometimes we are simply feeling severe anxiety, which can have overlapping symptoms. See how intertwined these two can be? That’s why I’m going to say it now and I’m sure I’ll say it again – get thee to a doctor or therapist. A professional diagnosis is key to understanding what treatment will work best for you! It’s super important and they will help you with unraveling the panic attack vs anxiety attack puzzle!
Useful Anti-Anxiety Tools
Ok, so I’m trusting that if you feel at all uncertain whether you have panic attacks or anxiety, you’re going to make a doctor appointment ASAP, right? Good. So let’s talk about some coping tools that I have found immensely helpful.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
This is my absolute favorite grounding technique for calming mounting anxiety and helping head off a panic attack. I really wanted to give credit to it’s inventor, but couldn’t chase that down. Not only have I learned this from my own therapist, it’s also widely acknowledged in the mental health world.
First, take a couple of long, deep breaths. Breathe in for the count of six, hold for the count of four, and exhale for the count of six. Repeat 2 more times, then:
5 – Count five things you can see. Any five things. As I name each one, out loud if possible, but at least in my head, I move a finger to keep count until I’ve used each finger on one hand. This also helps me stay connected between my mind and my body, bonus grounding!
4 – Count four things you can touch. Any four things, even your clothes, your face, a table, the ground. You get the idea. I also finger count these as I find them.
3 – Count three things you can hear. Anything that is outside your body counts! Even if you cough, that’s a thing.
2. – Count two things you can smell. This one I find to be a little tricky sometimes, but that does help with distracting my mind from it’s anxiety/panic. Some things I’ve used are food smells, outside smells, lotion from my purse etc. If you are into essential oils, lavender is a calming smell to take a short whiff of.
1 – Count one thing you can taste. Bear with me, this sounds kind of gross. But, what does your mouth taste like? If I’m home, I’ll even go drink something refreshing, or brush my teeth. If you are in public, you’re just going to have to acknowledge you can still taste the ranch dressing from your lunch salad. Bleh.
Reading through that, maybe it sounded complicated, but it isn’t. And in the moment, if you can’t remember the exact order, that’s fine. Improvise! The important part is to work through the 5-4-3-2-1 and keep your breathing steady. More times than not this has brought my racing heart back down and kept my panic at bay.
Picture Your Happy Place
This one doesn’t have as many steps, so it’s simpler, but still effective. What is the happiest place, at the happiest time of day, that you can possibly imagine? Here’s mine: the beach on a tropical island at sunset. The waves are lapping quietly at the shore, it’s peaceful, maybe some birds flying by. I can close my eyes and remember what it felt like to be there and it helps me feel calmer.
The key here is to plan through your happy scenario when you aren’t anxious, so you aren’t trying to hammer out details while your mind is racing!
Find Yourself A Support Person
I put this one last because I know it can be difficult if you are in a depressive season. When you find someone who can accept your anxiety without trying to change you, and just give you the support you need, hang on tight!
Being able to share your anxious feelings requires deep vulnerability and trust built over time. If you have someone in your life like this, ask them if they would be comfortable being an Anxiety Anchor Point. Remind them you don’t want problem solving, just presence. It can make a huge difference! My boyfriend is mine, he stays calm and doesn’t belittle me or freak out. We just wait for it pass, together.
Panic attack vs anxiety attack – does it really matter?
I really don’t think that the words we use matters, outside of a diagnostic setting. When you can’t breath and your heart is racing, you mostly just want to feel better. Think about which of the coping tools we looked at might be helpful, so that you have a plan if you start to feel these symptoms. Most importantly, visit a doctor or professional therapist for an accurate treatment plan! And remember, it will pass, you will be okay, you’ve got this!
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