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In an average day, things may occur that could fill a person with a sense of nervousness or dread. Close calls on the morning commute, sharp knives that fall to the floor during dinner prep, or tottering toddlers that come within inches of sliding down the stairs could all make hearts race and skin sweat. Nervousness like this is useful, as it allows people to react quickly when moments count. But some people have disorders in which they feel this sense of crisis even in moments that hold no danger at all.
Knowing what type of mental health disorder is in play is vital to the healing process. That is because different disorders respond to different treatments, and they stem from different causes. Here, we will compare and contrast two different disorders related to this sense of nervousness: anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
The term anxiety disorder is used to describe any and all disorders that have to do with a sense of nervousness and stress. This umbrella term encompasses panic disorder. Since the definition is so broad, it impacts a large number of people. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 18 percent of the population lives with an anxiety disorder of some kind.
Anxiety disorders arise from a complex interplay of genetics, chemistry, life events, and personality. There is no one risk factor that could make a person prone to anxiety. All of these factors, working together, boost the risk and prevalence.
A panic disorder is a specific type of anxiety disorder, and it has its own set of diagnostic checkpoints. People must have a very specific set of symptoms in order to qualify for a diagnosis of panic disorder, and some people simply have anxiety symptoms that do not qualify for a diagnosis of panic disorder.
Since it is a rigid diagnostic category, when compared to the broader anxiety disorder term, it applies to fewer people. ADAA says that about 6 million American adults have this disorder within a given year.
People with a panic disorder have the same risk factors faced by people who have an anxiety disorder. Their genes, life history, brain chemistry, and personality all play a role in the development of the disorder. But the American Academy of Family Physicians says that panic disorders come from a different risk factor too. People with panic disorders, these experts say, have faced some kind of stressful episode at some point in life. They experienced very specific physical symptoms during that episode, and they misinterpreted those symptoms. To them, the anxiety felt like something much more severe, and that experience guided the development of the panic disorder.
People with anxiety disorders experience sensations of terror during moments that others might not find terrifying at all. On an average day, people with anxiety may feel:
For some people with anxiety, the symptoms come and go depending on what is happening around them. People with phobias, for example, might feel fine the majority of the time. They may only struggle when they encounter a reminder of the thing they are afraid of. But some people with anxiety feel on edge all the time, in a relentless wave of fear that simply will not abate.
People with panic disorder may also have general anxiety symptoms. Throughout the day, they may feel jumpy, worried, and afraid. But people with panic disorder experience a wave of terror from time to time that passes through them for no discernable reason. One moment, they may feel fine; in the next, they may be swept away with fear.
Those fearful moments, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), come with very specific physical symptoms. Some people in the midst of a panic attack feel as though they are experiencing a heart attack. They sweat, tremble, and feel their hearts racing. They may feel as though they are about to die. That sensation of impending death makes the feeling of panic worse, and it can deepen the intensity of the attack.
Some people with anxiety also develop physical signs of anxiety, but they are not nearly as intense as those experienced by people in the midst of a panic attack. People with anxiety may not feel as though they are dying, so they may not experience a worsening sensation of panic either.
As mentioned, people with anxiety may feel worried and distressed much of the time. Even when they feel healthy and normal, they may be a little more on edge and alert, when compared to people who do not have anxiety disorders.
This sensation of nervousness must be in place for several months in order for a diagnosis of anxiety to apply. But again, there are no real episodes to measure, in terms of length. The feelings tend to persist, day in and day out.
A panic attack is a very short-lasting, very intense form of anxiety. It tends to appear out of the blue, overwhelm for several minutes, and then fade away. Most people who have panic attacks do not feel that intense form of anxiety all the time. Instead, they experience several short, intense episodes during any given week. Those episodes are quick, but they leave lasting scars.
People with panic disorder can become terrified at the idea of experiencing another episode, especially if they think they might feel terror while in a public place in front of critical outsiders. As a result, these people might feel general anxiety symptoms too.
According to NIMH, anxiety disorders are typically treated with medications, therapy, or both. Since anxiety disorders can take so many different forms, and since people who have anxiety disorders can come from all walks of life, there are no set guidelines for how the therapies should be treated. Instead, therapists perform in-depth assessments to determine how the person is feeling now and how the person’s past might complicate or help the recovery journey. Then, the team comes up with an individualized plan to help the person feel better.
Some people do not respond to the first form of therapy or medication provided, and they need to make a switch before feeling better. Others need to stay in therapy for long periods of time in order to achieve healing. The key is to work closely with a qualified provider on the healing process.
People with panic disorders may also benefit from a combination of medication and therapy. They may also need individualized treatment in order to get better. There is one form of therapy, according to the American Psychological Association, that may be especially helpful for people with panic disorders.
This therapy, known as interoceptive exposure, helps to break the connection between physical feelings of anxiety and a sense of panic or doom. People learn to correctly identify a physical sense of nervousness or worry as natural, normal, and controllable. In time, they learn to use meditation or visualization to control those symptoms, so they do not feel stressed by them. This is not a therapy that might help all people with anxiety, but it could be crucial for people with panic disorders.
Life with any kind of anxiety disorder is hard, but many people who have these issues simply do not get care for them. They may not know that help is available, or they may not think that treatment will help them. It is time to change that. If you have anxiety or panic disorder, talk to your doctor about care. It could make a world of difference for you.