Stop Using "Panic Atttack" When You Don't Mean It

Lately, I’ve noticed the normalization of the phrase “panic attack” to define a broad swath of emotions that are experienced by everyone instead of referring to a serious temporary state of mental trauma. While I am guilty of this at times, I think the casual use of this term is incredibly dangerous, both ideologically, in terms of how we see mental illness in Western society, and literally, for those who experience true panic attacks. I’ve written an article on panic attacks in the past where I expressed how the phrase “panic attack” often describes a one-time event, while “anxiety attack” is more commonly used when this experience becomes chronic. While this implies that “panic attack” may be used more commonly, as it does not have to be directly associated with a diagnosable “disorder,” I’d like to assert the problem of using the phrase “panic attack” to describe any situation that makes us feel scared or upset.

First, a little definition of what a “panic attack” is: panic attacks are discrete periods of fear and arousal of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which develop abruptly, usually peak in around ten minutes and then leave you susceptible to another panic spike for forty-five minutes after the attack “ends”. They are experienced at least once by most people but can occur frequently in people with panic, depression, and anxiety disorders. As anyone who has experienced a panic attack knows, they are not to be taken lightly. Attacks induce incredibly distressing physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, trouble breathing, and debilitating cognitive symptoms such as racing, hysterical thought patterns, the feeling of inescapable terror, and even anticipating impending death. Panic attacks are not you freaking out about a test, worrying about a love interest, or feeling tense and stressed out. Conflating these meanings reduces the seriousness of a phenomenon that people who struggle with mental illness can’t afford to take lightly.

It’s very surprising how often people use “panic attack” to describe any situation in which they feel anxious or panicky about a stressor in their lives, whether it be academic, emotional or interpersonal. In the past month alone I’ve heard both women and men say they are actively “having a panic attack” about stressors like upcoming essay deadlines, missing a spin class, and even a boyfriend not bringing them the right type of coffee. I’ve also heard people say they’re going to have a “nervous breakdown” from Weldon’s second-floor tables being full, and have a “psychotic break” because the grocery store was out of a certain brand of pickles. No joke. While these claims could be referring to genuine panic and anxiety attacks, the context of the conversations and the lightheartedness with which they moved indicated that they meant these terms to be taken colloquially, not literally.

The most common application of “panic attack” that I’ve experienced is in reference to schoolwork, as students seem to want to stress just how much pressure is on them in a very tangible and overstated way. Sometimes I experience true panic attacks because of school, but I overuse the term too, and in misusing the term, I’m co-opting language that is intrinsically tied to a time of incredible emotional distress and loss of control. As a result, I’m disempowering the term and minimizing the significance of a panic attack event in someone else’s life. Furthermore, if someone else who experiences genuine panic or anxiety attacks heard me using the phrase in such a casual sense, it could cause them to recall their own panic attacks and re-experience their trauma, or even aggravate symptoms of anxiety by hearing others minimize the significance of an attack. For some people, even hearing the words “panic attack” is enough to set off an attack in themselves. While it’s easy to throw around the term to emphasize how stressed you are, I do not want to be responsible for inducing an incredibly distressing and upsetting situation in someone else for no good reason.

Using the phrase “panic attack” in a casual and frequent way is also disrespectful to those who experience true panic or anxiety attacks, not just because it minimizes the seriousness of an attack, but also because it brings medicalized language into common speech. Making mental illness accessible like this puts diagnostic power in the hands of the public, which can be incredibly dangerous in cases of indirectly discouraging people from seeing a professional because they feel they can self-diagnose. Furthermore, people who are experiencing true panic attacks can overhear the casual use of medicalized terms in colloquial conversation and believe that a certain mental illness symptom is “normal” and to be treated lightly rather than a cause for concern or an issue that can be helped with professional care.

While we all misuse the phrase “panic attack” from time to time, I know that I want to work harder to stop co-opting this language unless I’ve had a true attack, and I believe we should all adopt a more compassionate perspective on this issue. After all, it benefits no one to jeopardize others’ mental health just for a relatable rant about your next midterm.

 

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