Recently, when a friend of mine was describing the stress that she felt while studying for one of her midterm exams she said, “I thought I was going to have a panic attack.” As someone who has struggled with anxiety for the majority of my life, I took her statement seriously. I asked if she was OK, and if she had a history of panic attacks; she looked at me like I was crazy.
“I was just being dramatic,” she explained, dismissing the conversation and moving on to a different topic.
After that incident I began to notice more and more how frequently people in my life misuse the term “panic attack.” People were using it as a synonym to mean stressed out, or worried, when in reality, for people who suffer from panic attacks, they are unfortunately so much more than feeling stressed.
While panic attacks depend on the individual, when I have one it feels as if my whole body is shutting down. I cannot breathe regularly, I cannot speak and I feel like I am going to throw up. My hands shake, my vision blurs, my ears ring and I begin to feel as if I am never going to feel normal again.
Even just describing the feeling on paper is making my palms sweat. Panic attacks are horrible, and while not everyone has the same symptoms as I do, they are horrible for everyone who has them. I would not wish a panic attack, or anxiety for that matter, on anyone. Panic attacks are not to be taken lightly and they are most definitely not synonymous with the stress one may feel over a midterm or a paper.
While academic stress is certainly not fun, it is not on the same level as a panic attack. Regular stress is nowhere near how a panic attack feels. Frankly, I never thought that was something that needed to be explicitly said, but here we are. I remember every panic attack that I have had in my life. I remember vividly how each one felt, where I was when it happened and how long each one lasted. Panic attacks are, unfortunately, extremely memorable. They are shaking events that can take hours, days or even weeks to get over.
When someone uses the term “panic attack” incorrectly, it upsets me for several reasons. First, it is unbelievably insensitive. By using a term that is as serious as this one is to describe your late-night cram session at Swem is frankly unacceptable. Using the term in that context diminishes the seriousness of panic attacks. Second, it can be and is extremely triggering for people who suffer from panic attacks. Every time someone casually throws around the term, I am brought back to every time I have had a panic attack. I do not enjoy thinking about those incidents, but sometimes just the word can bring back miserable memories. People who care about those who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks should work to remove the term from their everyday vocabulary. I know it can be difficult to change a habit, but for the sake of others, please do.
I know some may think that I am being too sensitive, but the misuse of the term panic attack is, in its essence, disrespectful to people who are struggling with issues of mental health. While not all individuals who suffer from panic attacks are bothered by the misuse of the term, I can promise that I am not the only one. If you notice yourself regularly misusing the term, please work to stop. It could save someone you know from having to relive some of the worst moments of their life.
Email Katherine Yenzer at firstname.lastname@example.org.