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4 Minutes Read

You’re Using These Mental Health Terms Wrong

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. As mental health awareness spreads, conversations about mental health experiences and struggles have become more commonplace — but it’s important to know not all conversations have accurate, helpful information — especially online.

Read on to discover some common mental health terms that are often used incorrectly, and learn what they actually mean.

1. Panic attack

Imagine you’re having a busy day at work when suddenly you remember another project that you have to get done which you haven’t even started yet. You immediately get stressed out and worried about how to get everything done — you might think you’re having a “panic attack”.

While this moment of increased anxiety and pressure is certainly unpleasant, it’s not actually a panic attack. With a panic attack, intense physical sensations take over — like sweating, shaking, dizziness, chest pain, and nausea. The intensity of the fear you experience makes you feel out of control, and you may even think you’re about to die.

Whereas you’re likely to experience relief from stress and anxiety once you’ve addressed the thing that triggered them, panic attacks can actually get worse if you rush to remove all their triggers. Paradoxically, the fear of having a panic attack can increase the likelihood of having a panic attack — part of treatment often involves learning how to face triggering situations instead of avoiding them.

2. Narcissist

As therapists, one of our pet peeves is hearing any and all selfish behavior being conflated with narcissism. Your future mother-in-law who wants you to have a religious wedding ceremony is a narcissist. Your coworker who loves to talk about himself and clocks out on time even when his team is struggling is a narcissist. Your friend’s boyfriend who plays video games all day while your friend works to pay the bills is a narcissist.

None of these descriptions meaningfully suggest that the individuals involved might meet criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the clinical diagnosis alluded to by the casual use of the term “narcissist”. Being pushy, self-centered, or lazy is not the same as the deep lack of self-worth, emotional instability, grandiose and manipulative behavior, and severe difficulty understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings found in people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

Having tough conversations and setting clear boundaries are in order when you encounter people who are not pulling their weight in your relationship or who aren’t really acknowledging or considering your point of view. On the other hand, if there’s a person in your life who may genuinely meet criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, more advanced interpersonal skills are necessary, along with possibly considering distancing yourself from the relationship.


For many of us, the memory of painful or frightening events stay with us for a long time, continuing to have an impact on our lives. Your grandmother’s sudden death may have made you more worried about losing other important elders in your life. Getting into a fender bender may have made you more nervous behind the wheel. Losing your job when your bills have already been piling up may have you wondering whether in a few months you’ll have a place to live.

These experiences are stressful, some may even be traumatic. However, the aftermath of traumatic experiences does not always equal PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. With PTSD, a person can’t stop thinking about the traumatic event even if they try, and typically experience flashbacks or nightmares about what happened (frequently both). 

People with PTSD are so on edge as a result of what happened that they often go to great lengths to avoid being reminded of it in any way, and may have a strong emotional response if reminded unexpectedly. Their overall mood is also significantly impacted by the traumatic event, often causing people to act more listlessly or recklessly than they have in the past.

Getting more support

No matter how your difficulties might be categorized officially, you deserve care and support for what you’re going through. That being said, understanding the correct terminology can help you connect to appropriate resources and seek out others with shared experiences more smoothly. If you’ve been wondering whether therapy is the right next step for you, click the button below to schedule a free initial consultation. We can chat about your journey so far, and discuss how therapy can give you a much-needed boost.


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