What is Anxiety, a Panic Attack, and Agoraphobia?

Those of you who have been around for a while know about my struggles with anxiety and how I’ve been battling it for a long time now. There was a time when I was open and honest about what was going on in my mind, and then I sort of shut off that switch to my personal life because I didn’t want everybody knowing what I go through.

In the last few months, I’ve come to a realization. I cannot keep this to myself anymore. I cannot pass it off as just “something that people go through sometimes”. I cannot worry about what other people think or let their opinions cast a shadow on the issue.  I’ve become more and more aware of what a problem anxiety (and depression) is across the globe and it’s simply not right that all of us who suffer feel like we should keep it to ourselves… for fear of what other people might think or for fear of them not understanding or believing us.

I’ve realized that there aren’t enough accessible resources for us who want to get help to actually get help. We hear it from our friends, family, and media, that if we are suffering in silence, we should get help. It sounds easy to do, but it isn’t, and I’ll share my own personal story about that in the near future.

As somebody who does suffer with this mental illness, and who does have a decent amount of eyes to share content with, I want to make it one of my duties to continue to be open and honest about it, educate others, and support those also going through it. It is the only way I know how to spark conversation and bring much needed awareness to the issue, and who knows, maybe even help others and myself in the process.

For those of you not familiar with anxiety disorders, or if you’d just like to learn about them, I’ll share some information below, and I will continue to touch on this subject in future posts.


What is an Anxiety Disorder?

An anxiety disorder is when your fears or worries are on overdrive. It’s totally normal to feel anxious about a test or an appointment or to worry about things, but when you have an anxiety disorder, it’s a constant overwhelming feeling of heightened nervousness.

Naturally, when we are faced with a fearful situation, our adrenaline starts pumping and our brains activate our “fight or flight” response. Meaning, we either put on our brave faces or get the heck out of there. Those of us with an anxiety disorder experience this feeling more unnaturally. It can be triggered by everyday things and situations where there really is no need to be afraid. When this starts to interfere with your everyday life (relationships, work, etc.), it becomes a problem.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack happens when those feelings of anxiousness become very intense. People experience panic attacks differently. Some may feel like they can’t breathe, or get sweaty palms, others feel lightheaded, shaky, or just feel like they’re going totally crazy.  A panic attack can come out of nowhere or be triggered by something… a thought, a visual, a situation you are in, etc. Sometimes just the thought of having a panic attack causes me to panic, which is common with anxiety disorders.

What does a panic attack feel like?

The best way I can describe it is that it feels like you are not in control of your own body and that you may die. That sounds completely absurd, I know, but when you are in a panicky moment, it’s a very scary feeling.  People experience these differently, but usually you will feel your thoughts racing with fears… telling you something is wrong.

With a really bad attack, I get lightheaded and break into a cold sweat. Like the feeling before you are going to pass out. When your hearing and vision get fuzzy and you turn as white as a ghost. I try to fight that feeling of my body wanting to faint.  I haven’t had one of those episodes in many years, however, the memories of those situations are what causes most of my anxiety and panic today. I think about them every time I start to feel anxious or am in a situation where I feel uncomfortable (“Oh no, what if I have a panic attack!?“), which in turn, makes me panic. It’s a vicious little game that your brain likes to play with itself.  When I panic now, I am fighting back all of those thoughts of having a full blown attack. My stomach gets upset and I get all shaky and clammy. I’ve heard of others feeling like they’re having a heart attack, though I’ve never personally experienced that.

What is agoraphobia?

When your anxiety gets so bad that it prevents you from leaving your home or comfort zones for fear of being exposed/trapped or having an anxiety attack, that’s agoraphobia at work. You start to avoid things because you don’t want to have to deal with the panic they bring. You have irrational fears of having a panic attack in a public place, or somewhere you are unable to get help. Crowded places, large buildings with far-away exits, or being “stuck” somewhere (like an airplane, or even a checkout line) all send you into a pit of worry… so you avoid them. Agoraphobia literally means “open-space phobia” — you are afraid of leaving the place(s) that make you comfortable for fear of being uncomfortable.

What should I do if I see someone having a panic attack?

Whatever that person wants you to do… do it. Personally, I don’t like to be around people if I am anxious or panicking. I feel like their eyes on me makes it worse and the worry in their voice exaggerates the feelings. The one tip I could give is to not act like anything is wrong. Do not panic with them, and do not appear to be worried. If they want you to talk to them, keep the subject off of their current situation. The one question I hate is “are you okay?” because it throws that worry back into my brain “OMG something is wrong with me… they clearly see it too!” Ask them if they want you to sit with them or what they would like you to do. Don’t make a big deal about it and it will fade.

What should I do if I start to panic?

I’m still working on this one, so I would love to hear your own tips below. Distracting yourself helps. Look around at your surroundings and take them all in. If I am in a checkout line or something, I will eyeball the candy bar displays and read the names of things to myself. Anything I can do to push those anxious thoughts aside. Most of all, just know that nothing bad will actually happen to you. A panic attack can usually only last up to 20 minutes (which seems like a long time in the moment, I know, but you won’t die, and it’s just a momentary feeling).

I hope this information helped shed some light on anxiety. If I missed anything, or if you had any questions about anxiety or my own issues, feel free to ask below. Open discussion is the best way to support one another 🙂

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By Dana Fox

Founder of the Wonder Forest blog and brand and bestselling author of the Watercolor With Me book series.

1 comment

  1. loved the article and took a lot of inspiration from it. I also wrote a post myself taking points from it. Love you and your blog Dana!
    xx Yousra

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