As someone who's been diagnosed with both major depressive disorder and an anxiety order, I know all too well what it means to suffer an anxiety attack. Although I'm in the 36.9 percent of people who receive treatment and take medication daily for both of my disorders, it doesn't guarantee that my depression won't occasionally kick into high-gear or that I'll never have anxiety attack. And, depending on what's going on in my life, either outside struggles or internal ones, my anxiety attacks can pop up more than usual. Or I can go months without one. For example, just in the last couple weeks, I've suffered two major anxiety attacks. Before that, it had been a few months.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. Every year, 18.1 percent of the population, ages 18 and older, are affected — that's roughly 40 million people. Although anxiety disorders are treatable, the majority of people skip treatment, with only a fraction, 36.9 percent, receiving treatment for their anxiety, despite the fact that those who have anxiety disorders are six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders, than those who don't have anxiety disorders. Basically, treatment is absolutely key.
But the thing with anxiety is that it's a legitimate disorder and not just some momentary freak-out. I have freak-outs all the time (I'm like a walking bundle of nerves), but there's a clear difference between an anxiety attack and a freak-out. So before you label your next freak-out an anxiety attack, know the difference because an anxiety attack makes a freak-out look like a walk in the park. Here are seven signs experts say it's an anxiety attack.
You Feel Trapped
"The anxiety you feel involves being trapped in a particular place, such as a meeting, a concert hall or a train," says Dr. Kushnick.
One of my greatest fears is having an anxiety attack on a plane. I can't even imagine what that would be like, if I were on a 15-hour plane ride to whatever faraway country I plan to run off to next, and having an anxiety attack. And it's not a fear of flying; it's a fear of an anxiety attack creeping up on me and not being able to become un-trapped in that attack.
It's A Familiar Feeling
So. Familiar. It's as though it's sticking to a script and it's refusing to waver or even add another plot to the storyline.
"The panic you feel reminds you of other recent anxiety attacks," says Dr. Kushnick. "Panic attacks often have a pattern to them. They are predictable based on their location/context."
You're Aware Of How Irrational The Attack Is
"You are fully aware of the irrational nature of the anxiety attack and therefore logic and reason don't help you to feel better," says Dr. Kushnick. "A freak-out involves really believing that there's a threat."
That might not make sense to someone who doesn't suffer from anxiety attacks, but when an anxiety attack strikes, you're actually aware how irrational it is, so no amount of trying to reason with your brain is going to make it go away. I once had an anxiety attack sitting on the couch, next to my mom, watching a movie. Logistically, it didn't make sense. I was comfortable, I was safe, I was actually, for the most part feeling pretty OK about life — or as "OK" as a depressive can feel about life — and it hit. A freak-out can be rationalized. Your wallet, for example, is stolen and your bank account has been drained, so you freak-out. That makes sense; that's justified. With an anxiety attack, there is sometimes no justification, well, except for the wiring in your head.
Anxiety Attacks Can Last For A Long Time
While a momentary freak-out is just that: momentary, an anxiety attack can last and last and last. According to Dr. Kushnick, although most attacks are 15 to 20 minutes in length, some can last all day long. And, again, no amount of talking yourself out of it is going to undo the situation. You need to let it run its course, or if you've been prescribed something like Xanax, take one and hope it works. I've had anxiety attacks that have been so extreme that not even a Xanax can take the edge off — my mind just rejects any and all attempts at help.
Your Body Has A Physical Response
Sure, your heart can race and you can even become nauseous during a freak-out, but your body's physical response to an anxiety attack is completely different. We're talking about shaking, sweating, heart pain, dizziness, numbness, and even rashes — my body, in particular just loves to break out in a some hives during an anxiety attack. The physical pain can be so overwhelming and so intense that some people have even mistaken them for heart attacks and have gone to the ER, only to be told it's an anxiety attack.
Depression May Follow
"You can also tell if it's an anxiety attack if you feel mild to moderate depression within about 24 hours of the event," says Dr. Kushnick. And, because depression and anxiety go hand-in-hand for many people, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American, this can come as no surprise. It can also come as no surprise because the mental and physical stress than an anxiety attack inflicts on the body and mind, even if you don't really understand just how extreme it is in the moment, can be truly exhausting, making us even extra vulnerable to depression.
Now that you know the difference, if you think you suffer from an anxiety disorder, then it's time to get help. Don't be in that large percentage of people who suffer in silence. While it may not be curable, it is treatable, with both medication and therapy.