As I lay there last night (erm… early morning), desperately groping around under my pillow to find my phone, pulling my blankets in tight, hoping that SOMETHING would be enough of a distraction to prevent at that point the inevitable from happening. An anxiety attack… great.
Anyone that has been following my blog for a while now may already full well know that I have a diagnosed panic disorder as well as generalized anxiety disorder. I deal with bouts of heightened ‘useless’ anxiety as well as panic attacks that ebb and flow in severity and frequency.
This is the point where I have to specify though that I am not using the terms anxiety attack and panic attack interchangeably. While there are many people out there (heck many doctors and therapists) who would say they are two names for the same thing, I am here to tell you…. they definitely are not. I, someone who usually suffers from panic attacks had an anxiety attack last night (it’s not something I experience nearly as often). So while they aren’t the same thing they also aren’t mutually exclusive. You can suffer from both.
Why then is it so important to know that there is a difference between the two?
Well first off, because there are many people who only experience one or the other and they deserve to be diagnosed, treated and have their symptoms managed appropriately. Secondly, for those of us ‘lucky ones’ who experience both forms of attack, the difference in symptom management can be the key to successfully overcoming the worst of the damage they do.
In some ways both the symptoms and self care required to prepare for and handle both anxiety and panic attacks overlap. Unfortunately some of the key differences between attacks means that the differences in handling them once they hit can really make a difference in how effectively they are managed. It really can range person to person here, so I can only go from my own experience.
For me an anxiety attack is like a pot of water that’s been set on high heat. Now unlike healthy people who have control over the temperature of their stove, I do not. It’s set on high and even though my water isn’t boiling yet, I know there are going to be some problems down the line. The hotter the water gets, the closer it gets to boiling, the harder it is to concentrate because I know I don’t have very much control and I know what is going to happen. Slowly the tension builds and I can see the bubbles forming and all of a sudden, there it is a rolling boil spewing all over the stove top uncontrollably.
Now a panic attack is like walking into someone else’s kitchen and there already being a pot of boiling water splattering all over the place on high heat. I don’t know how it got there, who put it there or why it’s there but I’m still the one who hast to deal with it. There is little to no warning and I’m in an unfamiliar place, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve been stuck in this situation before (hey you….who ever you are…. stop leaving boiling pots would ya?).
Now in both circumstances I have no control over the heat. The water is going to boil and I have to handle it, but how it started and how long I’ve been there are very different.
When anxiety hits I have a chance to make a difference and stop an attack in its tracks. The problem is I usually don’t. I let life get in the way, I tell myself the beginning warning signs (those early simmering bubbles) are just stress or my physical symptoms getting to me and that I’ll be fine. I’m too busy ignoring the early warning signs that by the time I take time to notice, it’s too big of a problem to get rid of with simple self care methods. It may take hours, days or weeks for the anxiety to kick into high enough gear to really set off an attack. All depending on how well I manage the beginning symptoms and pay attention, as well as how much every day life and my other illnesses get in the way.
This is where the real difference lies in managing once an attack hits.
Like I said, a panic attack is like walking into an unfamiliar place into an unknown emergency situation. It hits like a mental sledge hammer out of nowhere and first things first you have to figure out what’s going on. There is no just breath through it, there isn’t time. My only option and ability is to mentally scream to myself that I’m not dying. Sometimes my body physically gets up and runs, sometimes I grasp for something around me to ‘help’. The worst of it hits and I react before my brain can even process anything. We all like to think that in an emergency we’re going to be level headed and think clearly but when the fight or flight response kicks in…. it’s no easy task (even if it’s a useless one caused by the brain). After the initial disorientation wears off it’s time to collapse. All the physical symptoms of a panic attack start to kick in and now it’s time to use the energy I have left to manage them one by one.
Unlike a panic attack, when anxiety attacks strike I’m fully aware it’s going to happen and at this point I’m usually exhausted from dealing with the process leading up to it. I don’t have the energy for self talking myself through it or creating distractions to lessen the intensity (I just let that pot boil…). The physical symptoms overall are milder than when panic takes over, but they last much longer at their highest level. The after effects, even once mentally I feel a little better, are very harsh and usually make my physical ailments very difficult to deal with. Which ends up being a catch 22 when I ignore the warnings signs of anxiety building up again because I’m focusing on something else and it happens all over again.
It’s not that either is pleasant or that one is worse than the other once you take everything into account. It’s that they are in fact different and that matters in both understanding what you or someone you know might be going through as well as in how to manage them. Which is something I hope to get into in the near future.