Fear, Anxiety, or Panic?

Available with English captions and subtitles in Spanish.

There’s no question that healthy doses of fear and anxiety can serve us well. Individually or in tandem, they help us avoid everyday dangers and navigate life challenges. In fact, our brains are wired to leverage fear in response to perceived threats, and anxiety in response to threats that may or may not happen.

But when fear grows too intense, it can lead to panic attacks. And when anxiety goes unchecked, it can impair our ability to function.

So how can we tell the difference between naturally occurring fear or anxiety and life-impacting panic and anxiety disorders? When should we seek professional help for these challenges? And what does effective treatment look like?

Audience Questions

Nathaniel Van Kirk, PhD, breaks down both the helpful and unhealthy ways we respond to perceived and imagined threats, offers tips for recognizing what’s what and when to seek help, and answers questions about panic and anxiety disorders and how they’re treated.

  • What are the differences between fear, anxiety, and panic?
  • When are fear and anxiety healthy? And when are they unhealthy?
  • What happens in the brain and the body during fear and anxiety?
  • Can anxiety be triggered by imagined or false threats?
  • What are some warning signs to watch for when it comes to unhealthy anxiety or unhealthy fear?
  • Are fear, anxiety, and panic under a specific mental health classification?
  • When should one seek professional care for anxiety or fear?
  • What should we know about anxiety disorders in general?
  • Can you talk about some of the more common anxiety disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?
  • Is panic disorder considered an anxiety disorder?
  • What is it like to have a panic attack and what happens to the body during one?
  • What can one do to manage a panic attack?
  • How is panic disorder treated in the long term?
  • How does OCD treatment differ from panic disorder treatment?
  • How does ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) factor into these treatments?
  • What does treatment for social anxiety look like?
  • Are DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) and mindfulness used to treat anxiety disorders?
  • How does self-harm relate to anxiety issues?
  • How does one find treatment for anxiety disorders or OCD?
  • What can a loved one do to support someone struggling with these challenges?
  • What programs or resources can help clinicians learn more about anxiety disorders and OCD?
  • How is fear related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
  • Any suggestions for managing anxiety when it prevents you from falling asleep?
  • How do phobias fit into today’s discussion?
  • What do we know about the causes of anxiety disorders?
  • When are medications involved in the process of treating anxiety disorders?

The information discussed is intended to be educational and should not be used as a substitute for guidance provided by your health care provider. Please consult with your treatment team before making any changes to your care plan.


You may find this additional information useful:

About Dr. Van Kirk

Nathaniel Van Kirk, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in severe anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and trauma/PTSD. He is the director of psychological services at McLean’s OCD Institute.

Dr. Van Kirk is involved in efforts to reduce mental health stigma (including McLean’s Deconstructing Stigma campaign) and is working to bridge the gap between therapists, researchers, and those with mental health challenges, including individuals who work in the mental health field.

Learn more about Dr. Van Kirk.

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Originally aired on May 30, 2023