What are panic and anxiety really?

What are panic and anxiety really?

What are panic and anxiety, and why do we live with them? Modern life is full of stressors. We live through a pandemic and may be concerned about our health and our family and friends. Our children are affected by lockdowns, and we are unsure about the effect on them. Some of us have financial difficulties, and many breadwinners lost their jobs. We worry about our parents and our children. We are isolated from friends, and our support system is damaged. Anxiety is a normal reaction when we perceive danger. It is the way our bodies prepare us for coping in dangerous situations.

According to Oxford Languages, anxiety is a feeling of unease and worry during uncertainty. It happens when you are concerned about something that may (or may not) happen. Feelings of tension and worry characterize anxiety. Panic, however, is an intense and uncontrollable wave of fear or anxiety. It sometimes strikes unexpectedly with no apparent trigger. Panic can become so overwhelming that it causes illogical behaviour. For example, in 2017, people reacted to a false report of gunfire in the surrounded areas of the Oxford Circus tube station. They panicked, and in the stampede that followed, sixteen people were injured.

Panic and anxiety statistics


  • Anxiety disorders are a common mental problem globally.
  • According to Our World in Data, around 284.36 million people globally live with anxiety. This is about 4% of the global population.
  • Sixty-two per cent of sufferers are women.
  • Between 30 to 44 years, you are more likely to be affected by anxiety.
  • The rate of anxiety increased by 26% in 2020. It mainly affected young people and women. It seems that the coronavirus had a severe impact on the mental health of men, women, and children. 
Anxiety stats

Symptoms of anxiety

The symptoms of anxiety are known to us all. It is a mechanism of protection, although we may not understand it as such.

The most common signs are the following:

  • You may feel nervous, tense, and restless
  • Heart rate may increase
  • Rapid breathing or hyperventilation is a sign of anxiety
  • You may be sweating and trembling
  • Insomnia may be part of your symptoms
  • You may experience gastrointestinal problems
  • You may feel tired or weak
  • It may be difficult to control your worrying thoughts 
  • You may not be able to concentrate and think clearly
  • There may be a sense of danger or doom
  • You may want to avoid situations that trigger your anxiety

Symptoms of panic are more severe. You can sometimes confuse it with a heart attack. A panic attack is frightening for the person and the spectator. 

  • You may experience tightness or pain in the chest
  • Breathing becomes difficult, and you may be afraid of choking
  • You may experience chills or hot flashes 
  • You may experience terror and a fear of dying
  • It may feel as if you are going crazy
  • Everything can seem unreal and as if in a dream

Anxiety symptoms are often experienced over time. It can become more severe if stress factors are severe. Panic, however, is acute and immediate. But both can be debilitating and have a powerful effect on your daily functioning.

How does anxiety work?

For thousands of years, our bodies were adapted to protect us. When you are in danger, your body prepares to save you. You certainly have heard of the fight-or-flight reaction. It happens when the nervous system releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. The three hormones increase heart rate and blood pressure. It also speeds up reaction time by diverting blood to the muscles. Your body is now ready to act. 

But you may not only be in physical danger. You can also experience situations that you perceive as dangerous. An example is when you lose your job or lose a loved one. Your nervous system will react in the same way. The key here is your thoughts about the situation.

Thoughts trigger emotions. The more you dwell on how bad or how helpless you are, the more the emotional centre of your brain becomes overwhelmed. Your body releases hormones to enable you to survive. Your heart rate increases, and your breathing becomes laboured. It becomes increasingly difficult to control your thoughts, and you have an impending sense of danger. You are now in fight-or-flight mode.

In cases like losing your job or a loved one, the cycle may continue over a long time. Your anxiety may increase and become almost unbearable. It can be debilitating for your daily functioning. Your body has a system overload, and a simple event can unexpectedly trigger a panic attack. If you are scared that you have a heart attack, it will increase your body’s reaction. 

Who is more prone to panic and anxiety?

Certain factors influence whether you are more prone to panic and anxiety:


Twin studies showed that genetics contribute to the prevalence of panic and anxiety. Although you may not necessarily have panic and anxiety attacks, you may have a predisposition for anxiety. 


Type A personalities are competitive and ambitious. They may be impatient and aggressive. Being workaholics and high achievers mean that they are likely to have job-related stress. They are often unsatisfied with their work, even when it is done well.

If you are a Type A personality, you may also engage in behaviour that is self-defeating. Procrastinating and poor lifestyle choices will increase your anxiety. It makes you your own worst enemy. 


Traumatic experiences can alter the brain and make you more susceptible to panic and anxiety. Trauma is your emotional response to a perturbing incident. The experience may be a once-only occurrence, or it may be continuous. You may go through shock, guilt and self-blame and have difficulty concentrating. Other responses include sleep disturbances, alcohol and drug abuse, irritability, and anxiety.

Stressful situations

Stress is part of our daily life. External triggers like work overload, chronic illness, or discrimination cause a stress reaction. When stressed, you may feel irritable, angry, and tired. Constant worry about stressors leads to increased anxiety.

We all have challenges in life. Anxiety is a normal feeling when you are faced with a difficult situation. It is not always easy to manage panic and anxiety. Fortunately, some ways will help you to cope successfully. You can read it in “How to successfully cope with intense anxiety”.

Do you have a friend or family member who needs to read this article? Could they benefit from what you learned here? 

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