The Stressful Situation That Made Me Realize Panicking Isn't the Same as a Panic Attack

Within the last few weeks, my 8-month-old cat, Finn, has developed a newfound fascination with what’s on the other side of my apartment door. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but it did leave the cat in the hallway of my apartment complex, alone, for about seven hours.

Last night when I got home, I opened my apartment door and Finn kept trying to dart out. I pushed him back but, apparently, as I was closing the door behind me, he must’ve run out between my legs or something. I went to bed oblivious, and when I woke up this morning, Finn was nowhere to be found. I brought out the cat treats — a surefire way to get him to come out of hiding. Nothing. I looked in all the cabinets, under the bed, in the closets and even in the refrigerator (just in case). Nowhere. And then I heard his little squeak and the sound of him clawing the doormat. He had spent the entire night in the hallway by himself. I felt horrible about it and that I didn’t notice until that morning.

When I told my boyfriend what happened, he asked, “Did you have a panic attack?” And I responded, “I panicked, but I didn’t have a panic attack.”

And it made me think. There’s something very different about feeling anxious about a stressful situation, something that happens to everyone, and having anxiety or panic disorder. When I was looking for Finn, yeah, I was nervous about what had happened to him. But my brain was on high alert as I searched for him. I have an anxiety disorder, but when I go through an actual stressful event, I react like everyone else — sometimes even better. I’m actually less anxious during stressful events than I am during a panic attack.

When I worked at the newspaper, something stressful could happen on a daily basis. Picking up the phone to someone screaming at me. Having to call a parent whose child just died. These things would make anyone anxious. But for me, the girl who actually has panic attacks, I was fine in these situations. At my job now, when I have a last-minute project due or when I have four different managers asking me to do four different things or when I barely even have time to eat lunch, that’s when I thrive.

The difference between being anxious and having anxiety disorder — for me at least — is that my panic attacks stem from something that wouldn’t make a normal person anxious. I will panic when I’m bored at work. I will panic when I’m home alone, lying on the couch. I will panic when I’m checking Facebook or text messaging a friend. I will panic when I’m talking to someone and I misinterpret their tone of voice.

When I’m having a panic attack, I can’t think. I can barely move. My breathing is labored, my chest hurts, and I’m pretty much incapacitated to the world. And many times, there’s no logical reason for feeling this way. That makes it even scarier. I’d rather know I’m feeling anxious because I can’t find my cat, than feel anxious and have no idea why.

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