Popular culture has long used mental health as a source of inspiration for fiction and reality television, alike. From the early days of Jack Nicholson’s career to the recent slew of streaming services’ mental health-based programming, pop culture has hovered around mental illnesses and disorders for years. Are these media portrayals of mental illness helpful, however, or problematic? To understand this question and how it pertains to panic attacks, we will first identify what a panic attack is and what it presents with.
What Is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is the primary symptom of panic disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by periods of panic that have both physical and mental effects. A panic attack may differ slightly from person to person, but typically includes at least some of the following:
- Although sweating is perfectly normal, a panic attack is often accompanied by a sudden and unexplained spike in the amount of sweat being produced. Even in cold climates or rooms, someone with a panic attack may find themselves virtually drenched in sweat.
- Racing heart. Panic attacks often cause chest discomfort brought on by an elevated heart rate. A racing heart can feel like tightness in the chest, thudding in the chest cavity, or a sensation of lightheadedness or dizziness.
- Elevated breathing. Elevated respiratory rates are frequently experienced during panic attacks, which can further exacerbate a racing heart and dizziness. Elevated breathing can escalate into hyperventilating.
- Feelings of fear or panic. As the name suggests, panic attacks are accompanied by feelings of panic. Panic might feel like dread or uncertainty, or can prompt thoughts such as “I can’t do this” or even “I’m dying.” Panic attacks can look and feel similar to heart attacks.
- Feelings of impending doom or despair. Even in the absence of outright feelings of panic, people with panic disorder may feel a sense of impending doom or despair.
- Racing thoughts. During a panic attack, it may be difficult to focus, listen, or even speak. Thoughts can feel as though they are racing through countless scenarios and negative outcomes, which compounds existing panic attack symptoms.
Learn more about panic attacks here.
The Ins and Outs of Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that can present with other disorders, but can also stand alone as a diagnosis. Panic disorder is often confused with anxiety, just as panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often used interchangeably. Panic disorder and other anxiety disorders differ primarily in the way that panic disorder is expressed. Panic disorder is characterized by repeated and unexpected instances of panic attacks. Unlike anxiety attacks, which have a trigger, panic disorders are by nature random and not tied to any one trigger or instigator, and are therefore impossible to predict and difficult to control.
Dissecting Popular Culture’s Portrayals
Popular culture often uses panic attacks and other mental conditions as a romantic ploy in order to demonstrate closeness, connection, or “rightness” in a relationship. The truth of the matter is, however, that no matter how close a relationship is, there is no guarantee that a loved one that help quickly and easily overcome a panic attack. In some cases, medication is needed, or a panic attack must simply run its course. Panic attacks should not be used as a gauge to determine how well someone knows a friend, family member, or loved one.
Panic attack portrayals often fail to highlight the gravity of the situation in the moment: while someone might look largely “fine” to everyone nearby, panic attacks possess physical symptoms that extremely closely mimic the symptoms of heart attacks and similarly life-threatening events. Someone having a pain attack may need to race to the bathroom to avoid having an accident due to gastrointestinal upset, and may need to immediately lay down and take deep breaths. Panic attacks can grow substantial enough to require a trip to a doctor or hospital, as well.
People with mental illnesses are often also inaccurately portrayed as being consigned to hospitals, or being under constant care. This is harmful and problematic, because it suggests that individuals with a host of different mental disorders and conditions are not safe, or need to be kept away from others. This is not true of most mental disorders, including panic disorder, as people with mental health challenges and disorders are capable of living full, healthy, and fulfilling lives.
Any time mental health is tackled on a screen or in the media, it is important to make sure representations are as accurate and compassionately portrayed as possible. To this end, accurately identifying what a panic attack is (and isn’t) should be a priority in film-making and writing for television and other media mediums. Accurately and sensitively portraying panic attacks and other mental health conditions can help reduce the stigma of mental illness, raise awareness, and reduce the sense of alienation many people with mental disorders like panic disorder feel.