Ever been worried, apprehensive, or even panicky at times?
Yes? We thought so. We all have. Suddenly, you feel a knot in your throat, your heart starts pounding, you’re short of breath, shaky, drenched in sweat, and a bit dizzy.
Brace yourself. Your body’s fight-or-flight response is switched on and is quickly taking over. You are in survival mode.
We hope there are no imminent dangers or actual threats nearby: no tigers, no serial killers or zombies in sight—not that you know of, at least. Still, you feel under attack. And, in some ways, you are.
The word attack, first recorded around 1590–1600 and borrowed from the French word attacquer, means “to join battle.” It makes it quite clear: hostilities have begun. So, that was a panic attack. Right? Wait, or was it an anxiety attack?
Well, chances are high that you have just experienced one of the two. But, which was it?
Same … but different?
Plenty of people use either term to describe a sudden feeling of overwhelming fear and frantic agitation that—if this was not enough—come together with a wide array of physical symptoms.
Anxiety and panic attacks share more than a few traits and, truth be told, could feel the same, sometimes. Except they are not.
If you have ever had a panic attack, you will know the difference. If you haven’t, it could be hard to tell. Don’t feel bad, though. If you can’t tell which is which, you’re not alone. And if you have ever used those terms interchangeably, you’re not alone either. Let’s get to the root of it.
So, what does anxiety exactly mean?
The first known use of the word anxiety dates back to the 1500s. Ultimately, it comes from the Latin verb angō, which means “I torment, trouble, vex, or distress,” or even “I choke, strangle. I cause physical pain.” Well, what can we say, anxiety? Indeed, you do.
The term anxiety describes an unsettling and persistent state of inner turmoil that is normally associated with an event we perceive as challenging. Oftentimes, we hear people say they are anxious about a job interview, an exam they are studying for, or a meeting they are invited to speak at.
The uneasiness of mind and distress that stem from the anticipation of the dreaded event—whatever it is—tends to build up over time. Until it gets out of hand and anxiety goes straight through the roof. And there you have it. A full-blown anxiety attack.
It isn’t all bad though. Let us put in a good word for it. At its core level, anxiety is actually a natural and potentially life-saving reaction to danger. It’s the response of your fight-or-flight system, a clever built-in mechanism designed to keep you safe and alive.
What does panic mean, then?
The word panic takes things up a notch or two. It refers to a feeling of pure terror, with or without an obvious trigger, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior and can often spread quickly through a group of people or animals.
Sure enough, the adjective widespread and the noun panic get on pretty well. First evidenced in 1595–1605 and meaning “pertaining to Pan,” panic owes its name to the half-goat, half-man Greek god, Pan.
God of shepherds, rocky hills, and pastures, Pan was believed to spend his days wandering peacefully through the woods, while playing a pipe and unsuccessfully courting amiable nymphs. He was also thought to have a terrifying voice. If accidentally awakened from his noontime nap he would let out such a loud scream that would inspire irrational and contagious fear in others, herds, and crowds. (Who likes to be abruptly disturbed in their sleep, anyway? We hear you, Pan.)
A panic attack would catch you off guard in the middle of nothing or in a crowded place with no apparent reason, set off by something you can’t quite put your finger on. When we say we panic about something, what we probably mean is that we feel extremely anxious about it. Nothing wrong with that. We are in such distress that it feels like panic but, strictly speaking, it’s most likely not.
On a side note, we also use panic to describe an economic or financial disaster and, although the idea of it could trigger an attack, that’s a whole other story.
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Anxiety attack vs. panic attack: when to use which
So, are you just being human, or have you stumbled upon a Greek god? Many of us use these two terms interchangeably, and that’s not necessarily incorrect. After all, their symptoms are so similar that you may not be sure whether that was anxiety trying to choke you or you inadvertently woke up Pan from his noon nap.
However, despite all the disruption they both can cause, anxiety and panic attacks don’t share the same status in the eyes of clinicians. Not according to the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition), the mental health professional’s Bible.
Disappointing as it is, only panic attacks are formally identified and classified as full-fledged diagnoses. In fact, anxiety attacks—which is not, by the way, an official medical term—are not recognized in the DSM-5 as clinical conditions. Not yet.
But how we use these in everyday conversation can vary from how clinicians use the words. As a general rule: if it comes on gradually in response to a real or perceived threat, you’re simply having a natural reaction. Call it an anxiety attack and rejoice. Your fight-or-flight system is on point, and it’s doing what it’s meant to do.
Whereas if it comes out of the blue, without warning or any obvious cause, and it’s paralyzing and makes you lose all reason, feel free to blame it on Pan. You can call it a panic attack, and rightly so; this use of the term is closely related to the medical term and diagnosis.
Either way, remain calm. There are ways to cope with both. No need to hit that panic button.
You know what could make anyone panic? A volcanic eruption. Read up on whether it would be magma or lava flowing toward you, so at least you won’t get anxiety over what to call it.