As a psychotherapist practicing in New York City, I’ve treated my share of patients who experience a baseline of anxiety, intermittent anxiety and panic attacks.
What’s the difference between them?
People who have a persistent level of anxiety live with a baseline of excessive, uncontrollable worry about a number of things – and they may anticipate disaster even when the actual events do not merit it. They may experience any or all of the following symptoms: restlessness, fatigue, trouble concentrating, muscle tension or sleep disturbances. When these symptoms persist for more than 6 months and happen more days than not, these people may be eligible for the diagnosis of “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” When the level of anxiety is mild to moderate people can function fine, though with discomfort. Severe levels of anxiety may cause sufferers to avoid anxiety-provoking situations or have trouble carrying out simple daily tasks.
Then there are those who experience episodes of more severe anxiety or anxiety attacks, which are usually triggered by some sort of stressor (e.g. being late and pressured, public speaking, a difficult conversation with one’s boss, etc.). This level of anxiety may include symptoms such as shortness of breath, racing heart, tightness in the chest, confusion, etc. Usually when the stressor goes away, the symptoms gradually subside.
Panic attacks can be an even more debilitating manifestation of anxiety. They may be a reaction to being exposed to the object of a phobia (e.g. large groups of people in the case of social phobia or riding on the subway in the case of claustrophobia), or to a medical condition which brings on scary symptoms (e.g. mitral valve prolapse or hypoglycemia.) Panic attacks are usually short-lived – 10 minutes on average -- but can produce feelings of intense fear and doom. Symptoms include heart palpitation, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, a sense of choking, tingling in the body, chest pains and a fear of actually dying. When panic attacks come out-of-the-blue and regularly, with no apparent trigger, the person often becomes very preoccupied about future attacks and they may avoid situations that they believe trigger them. These people may be eligible for the diagnosis of “Panic Disorder.”
If you suffer from any of these forms of anxiety, you are not alone! According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a whopping 40 million or 18% of Americans over the age of 18 have some sort of anxiety disorder. Not only are you in good company, there is no reason to despair! There are numerous types of effective treatments out there, from a variety of talk therapies, to behavioral strategies, to medication, to all of the above. You might start by contacting a psychotherapist who can help you determine a course of action that works for you. As I mentioned before, you are not alone if you have anxiety, so why suffer alone?
Author: Kayla Schwartz - LMSW - Clinical Associate