“Is it stress? Is it anxiety? Or even a panic attack?”
There is a lot of confusion about which is which, and people love mixing them up… Here is a table from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) regarding stress vs anxiety:
Stress and Anxiety
Response to an external cause, such a test, a presentation or a fight with a friend. Once the situation has passed, it usually goes away. Stress can be positive or negative. It may encourage you to meet a deadline (positive stress), or it may cause you to lose sleep (negative stress).
Both can affect your mind and body. You may experience these symptoms: · Excessive worry · Lack of sleep · Stomachache, headache · Uneasiness · High blood pressure · Sweaty hands · Dizziness · Anger · Irritation · Fatigue · Insomnia · Difficulty concentrating
Generally it is internal, meaning it's your reaction to stress. It usually involves a persistent feeling of dread or apprehension that doesn't go away even if there is no immediate threat. It affects how you live your life.
There is a huge difference on one hand and a fine line on the other between these two.
Stress can lead to anxiety, and it is a good idea to notice your personal stress-baseline. Before each flight, I visit the bathroom multiple times, that is my stress response. Nowadays, I just think, “argh, here we go again…”. My daughter starts sweating profusely before getting on a plane, and you will see her peeling off one layer of clothes after the other at the gate. She just leaves lots of space in her carry-on to stuff everything into it...
With “a fine line” I mean that both are emotional responses (for example irritation, uneasiness or anger) that we feel in our body. The symptoms are very similar and often overlap. The main difference is that stress is normally caused by an external trigger. This can be an important exam, a presentation in front of your whole school or your participation in a musical performance as short-term stressors. Long-term stressors could be the long difficult breakup with your friend, a pandemic or a chronic illness.
The huge difference is that “anxiety disorder” (and “panic disorder”) are psychologically diagnosed mental disorders. There are different forms of anxiety disorders such as General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) and also specific phobias, for example an animal type phobia like a spider phobia. Anxiety is internal in nature. You feel extremely anxious or stressed even without an exam looming, the feeling is persistent, can go on for months and negatively affect your mood, functioning, your daily life. There is often excessive worrying going on as well, and it doesn’t go away…
A Panic attack is stress and anxiety on steroids, meaning it is much worse!
Panic disorder is a very sudden “attack” often including breathing problems (gasping for air or hyperventilating), a racing heart, feeling frozen, being unable to move, sweating, intense fear or other symptoms. One notion is that you “feel out of control”. Intense is the word here!
It is a good idea to “get to know yourself better”. Identify your stress-baseline because what makes you sweat, leaves me cold, when you gasp for air, I still breathe calmly, and when I freak out, you might be unfazed. Observe yourself, notice, accept and work with your symptoms.
Next time, I will share some ideas on what to do and how to handle these different situations.