Anxiety and panic attacks are awful. For those that suffer from anxiety and panic disorders, the feeling of an anxiety attack creepy up slowly and slamming you with fear and worry is all too familiar. What’s worse, is that it is all happening in your head and body, unbeknownst to those around you.
You struggle to catch your breath, rub at your chest, and hope it will be over soon – all while fighting off the very real feeling that you are going to die. Meanwhile, your family, friends, and co-workers don’t know what is happening, and likely think that you’ve lost your mind or are having some sort of mental episode.
This is the very real situation for 40 million adults in the U.S. suffering from anxiety and panic disorders, which translates to 18.1% of the population. Even though anxiety and panic attacks are the most common mental health illness in the country, only 36.9% of those afflicted seek any sort of treatment for the disorders.
Anxiety and Panic Disorder Facts and Statistics
Before we get into what it feels like to have a panic or anxiety attack, let’s learn more about what these disorders are, and how they affect so many in the United States.
- Anxiety and Panic Attacks Usually Accompany Depression – Doctors aren’t exactly sure why, but both anxiety/panic disorders and depression seem to go hand-in-hand, with sufferers of one having increased chance of suffering the other.
- 264 Million People in the World Suffer from Anxiety Disorders – According to the World Health Organization (WHO).
- Women Are More Likely to Suffer from Anxiety Disorders than Men – With an average of 4.6% of women and 2.6% of men suffering from the disease per WHO research.
- Anxiety Symptoms in Men Tend to be More Severe than in Women – Just because the disease tends to afflict more women than men doesn’t mean that men are suffering less.
- General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is By Far the Most Prevalent Form of Anxiety Disorder – with 5% of Americans having suffered from the disease at some point in their lifetime.
- Anxiety Disorders are More Common in ADHD Sufferers – Along with depression and eating disorders.
- Panic Disorder Is Seen in 2.7% of Americans – A whopping 15 Million Adults.
- OCD is More Common in Those with Anxiety Disorders – OCD affects 2.2 Million Adults in the U.S.
- Research Has Shown that 31.9% of Children (Ages 13-18) suffer from an anxiety disorder – Ages 13-14 (31.4%), Ages 15-16 (32.1%), Ages 17-18 (32.3%).
What is the Difference between and Panic Attacks?
Anxiety and panic, both attacks and disorders, have similarities and differences. In many cases they are two parts of the same disorder, with anxiety often leading to a panic attack. The best way to explain it is by explaining what anxiety and panic both are.
Anxiety – is a feeling that something is wrong, subtle at first, and increasing slowly. It is a creeping feeling that something bad is about to happen, and anxiety can build and last for days or weeks. It can also wax and wane, with anxiety building for several days before hitting a peak or plateau before slowly subsiding again.
Panic – is that feeling when you touch your pocket and realize that your phone or keys are missing, only it happens for seemingly no reason. It is a chemical reaction to stimuli and usually negative stimuli. It happens quick, peaks quickly, and drops again just as quickly. Though it progresses more quickly than anxiety, the symptoms are much more intense.
For most people with panic and anxiety disorders, the anxiety and the panic are just two forms of the same thing. An anxiety sufferer will usually feel an anxiety cycle building for days or weeks before it begins to subside. When the anxiety peaks, a panic attack is likely to also peak. After the peak, the symptoms usually subside and offer a person temporary relief, until the cycle repeats again.
Panic Attack and Anxiety Attack Experiences
For someone who has never had a panic attack, it can be difficult to understand why so many worry about the attacks and say that it is the worst feeling you can ever have. The best way to get an understanding of what a panic attack and anxiety feel like is to hear real people give their accounts.
Panic Attacks Feel like You Are Going to Die
“When I first got panic attacks, I didn’t know what they were. I would be feeling fine, and all of the sudden, I would get the sense of impending doom. Like something bad was about to happen. Since there was nothing around me that should make me feel like that, I thought it meant I was dying, and my body knew it, but my brain didn’t.” – Lee | Gainesville, FL
“It definitely feels like you are dying, but you don’t know what of… One moment you are fine and the next you tell yourself: ‘great, I am about to die in the middle of a F***ing Wal Mart.’” Trent | Sterling, CO
“I have an arrhythmia, and get heart palpitations every few days or so. It gets worse as my anxiety peaks, but during a panic attack, my heart goes wild. I can have multiple palpitations the few minutes that the panic attack lasts. Because of my pre-existing condition, I never know if it is just a panic attack, or if it is a heart attack or something more serious. Every time, it turns out to just be a panic attack, but every time I think I am about to die.” – Kelly | Worcester, MA
“I drank every single day for at least 5 years. I decided to quit drinking after I was arrested, and had my first “real” panic attack the first day I was sober.” I thought I was dying so my girlfriend called an ambulance and they took me to the hospital and told me I was having alcohol withdrawals. I didn’t quit completely after that, and ended up having increasingly bad panic attacks for the next few years until I was able to get sober. I still have them, and they still feel like I am about to die, but the first was the worst. – James | Columbus, OH
Panic Attacks Show Up at the Worst Times
“It was the first day at my new job, and they were making us go around the room and tell a little about ourselves. I am a shy person, so I was nervous anyway. As they went around the room, and got closer to me, I felt my nervousness turn into anxiety. By the time it was my turn, my panic attack was just peaking. I tried to think of something to say, and instead of saying anything, I burst into tears. I was hyperventilating and kept apologizing. Thankfully, the training manager recognized that I was having a problem and moved on to the next person. I have never been so embarrassed, but I got through it and had 3 wonderful years with that company – even though my first day was a literal waking nightmare.” – Jean Marie | Salt Lake City, UT
“I was meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time at a fancy restaurant for dinner. I had been feeling the anxiety pressure all day, so I knew that a panic attack was looming. The restaurant was attached to a shopping mall, so I walked around the whole mall before going to the restaurant – hoping to force the anxiety attack and get it over with before having to meet his parents. It didn’t work, so I went in to meet his parents. The panic attack never happened, but I was nervous the entire time, and I wasn’t acting myself. My boyfriend told his parents about my anxiety before we met, so they were overly nice to me, and it ended up working out. That whole dinner was hell though.” – Caty |La Mesa, CA
“I had the worst panic attack of my life in the emergency room of the hospital. I had food poisoning, and for some reason my body felt that was a good time to have a panic attack. I wanted to leave the hospital because I just couldn’t deal with the doctors and nurses being too close to me. They wouldn’t let me leave and tried to hold me down, which made the panic worse. Long story short, a nurse got punched and I got sedated and introduced to bed straps.” – Jane | Bakersfield, CA
Other People Don’t Understand What is Happening When you are Having A Panic Attack, and they Make it Worse
“Why is it that if you tell someone you are having a panic attack, their first instinct is to touch you? That is the worst possible think you can do! Give me space and let me just deal with it. I’ve learned to just keep it to myself, walk away and go to the bathroom or somewhere I can be alone, but in the beginning, I made the mistake of telling people, ‘hey I am having a panic attack right now.’ And my parents or friends felt the need to try and touch my shoulders or tell me to just relax, or some other stupid thing that does not help” – McKenzie | San Antonio, TX
“I was a sophomore in high school, and I had just walked into English class when Boom! I was hit with an intense panic attack. The teacher noticed I was acting funny and put me on the spot. I couldn’t even formulate the words, so just mumbled something and told her to leave me alone. She was pissed and called the high school officer on me, suspecting I was on drugs. Even the cop didn’t believe I was just having a panic attack, telling me that I was showing the signs of a person who is on drugs. It took a drug test and note from the doctor to avoid suspension from school and that whole scene haunts me to this day. – Rebecca | Highlands Ranch, CO
“We were at a party at a friend’s parent’s house in high school, and everyone was drinking. I wasn’t really a big drinker in high school, so I only had a few sips of a drink. I got a panic attack and I still didn’t know how to handle them back then. I got scared and started crying. I told my friends I wanted to go home. My friends didn’t want to leave, so I asked the guy whose parent’s house the party was at if he could give me a ride home. He was suspicious of me and for some reason thought I was going to tell my parents about the alcohol and smoking. He told everyone to not let me leave, and some of his friends were even forceful, trying to keep me in his room and talk me out of leaving. I couldn’t explain myself, because I couldn’t even find the words. This went on for a while before the cops actually showed up because the neighbors had complained. The worst panic attack situation I have ever had.” – Anonymous
Should You Get Help for Panic and Anxiety Attacks?
Anxiety and panic attacks make for more than just awkward situations, persistent anxiety can take over your life, keep you from doing what you want in your personal life and your career, and can cause the quality of your life to drop. Only 30% of those with anxiety disorders ever reach out for help with their symptoms, and many feel like there is nothing that can be done for panic disorders.
The danger in not seeking treatment for panic disorders is the fact that anxiety and panic can quickly and easily morph into more dangerous co-occurring disorders. Those with panic attacks are more likely to have mental health issues like OCD, depression, severe depression, suicidal thoughts or feelings, and substance abuse issues.
There are many ways to battle the symptoms of anxiety naturally and holistically if you so choose. Medication is not the only treatment for anxiety, and in many cases, medication is not the best option for treatment.
In the end, it is up to you, but you should never feel alone or helpless. There are many others that share your struggles with anxiety, the awkward moments, the frustrations, and even have developed tricks to help deal with the symptoms. As anxiety sufferers, we are a community that understands each other’s stressors and embarrassing moments, and as a community, we can help each other as well.