People flip out when I say the words “panic attack,” but I want them to know that lately, they really have nothing to be afraid of. My panic attacks lately are minor––equivalent to anxiety attacks––but I still categorize them as panic attacks due to the way they’re triggered and because I always hyperventilate just a little bit during these moments.
Anyways, as I’ve navigated Panic Disorder over the last two years, I’ve discovered that not all panic attacks are created equal. I’ve had panic attacks that have lasted 10 minutes (e.g. all the ones I’ve had this past year), I’ve had some where I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe and felt dizzy––yet still calmed down relatively quickly––and I’ve had ones that have lasted an hour (the ones that sent me to the ER back in Feb./Mar. 2017). Although I still struggle with panic disorder, it’s pretty mild––I was panic attack free from February-May and only had one panic attack each month in June and July. None no far this month, which is good news.
So, with this in mind, here are the three categories I’ve adopted for panic attacks and their characteristics:
- Mild: crying with a low level of hyperventilating (may or may not hold head in hands to avoid feeling shame), muscle tension/shakiness, running off emotions but still able to understand others’ words, does not lose touch with reality, some verbal communication, possible mild headaches from stress; recovers within 15 minutes. This is the most common level for people who have gone through therapy and is the stage my panic attacks fall into.
- Moderate: Hyperventilating becomes more severe and person starts having difficulty breathing, lightheadedness, immediate onset of muscle weakness, very tense muscles, can somewhat process what others are saying, possibly unable to speak, high levels of fear, starts becoming uncharacteristically angry, heart starts racing, nausea, cold sweats; recovers in less than 30 minutes. This is the most common level for people who have tried anxiety-management strategies, but don’t quite know how to use them yet.
- Severe: Worthy of sending someone to the ER. Vertigo (the person can barely walk), very tight chest/ inability to breathe (for the most part) due to tightness in throat, starts losing touch with reality/ feels like they’re losing control or going insane, no communication at all with anyone nearby, often repeats one phrase (“I can’t breathe,” or “help” are were common for me), heart races very quickly, wants to literally flee their environment and may resist help, possible self-harm behaviors. This is often the severity for those with PTSD, those with severe PD/agoraphobia (fear of being in places or situations that induce anxiety), and those with newly-discovered anxiety disorders.
Reading about them is one thing, but what if we watched some movie clips with some of your favorite characters?
Mild: Elsa from Frozen
Elsa has anxiety? Why, yes––she often says, “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.” Feeling is what triggers her fears, as with any anxiety disorder. Those with an untrained eye would just think she’s really hurt––and while that’s true, those with the trained eye know exactly what she struggles with. Elsa acts pretty normal before Anna gets there, but the anxiety comes after Anna mentions what happened in Arendelle, Elsa starts holding her head, can still listen to Anna yet is still concentrating on her fear, has a bit of panic in her eyes, and starts to focus on her emotions that just upgraded in intensity. She’s not at the point of crying yet, but she seems to have mild hyperventilating from her fear and inability to control the situation. As you can see, she’s still functional, but her fears are starting to get the best of her.
Moderate: Jessie from Toy Story 2
Those who don’t have anxiety may just think Jessie is overreacting to a bad memory. While that’s true, I think she’s experiencing a moderate panic attack. She’s hyperventilating to the point where it looks like she can’t breathe (she’s holding her hand over her chest, which is a pretty good sign), her heart is most likely racing, she gets antsy and shakes people, is teary-eyed, and her eyes scream “fear.” Also, it seems like she’s not really listening to Woody or Stinky Pete because she’s stuck in that memory of being inside a box (perfectly understandable, though).
3. Katniss from the Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Katniss is so strong, right? Well, maybe not. She’s human, and she’s having devastating flashbacks that draw her into a place of severe panic. If you don’t believe me, just skip halfway through this video and watch the clip. You’ll see what I mean. Anyways, after she shoots the guy with her arrow, Katniss literally starts losing touch with reality because of a flashback. She literally can’t listen to those who try to calm her down because she’s just that panicked. She’s clearly hyperventilating and distressed, and she’s not communicating in any way. If this were real life, she’d probably run away from Gale at that point, or Gale would take her to the ER.
So, as you can see, some panic attacks really aren’t that bad. Most people with PD or PTSD will use that term as a synonym for a general “anxiety attack,” but it’s often that people with Social Anxiety Disorder, GAD, or OCD will use those because their disorders work slightly differently. All in all, panic attacks are characterized by the feeling of panic in some way, whether that’s mild, moderate, or severe.