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Anxiety is a natural response from the body to warn you about possible threats and dangers. It prepares your body for a given situation by allowing you to react immediately without thinking. The feeling can arise in social interactions or when you are on your own. It is normal to experience anxiety in response to stressful life events or novel situations. However, when anxiety becomes constant or is present without a threat, it can be very challenging. Generally, we speak of an anxiety disorder when anxiety inhibits you from going about your normal daily life (Kupfer, 2015).
While experiencing anxiety, you might end up having an “anxiety attack”, which is a sudden, intense surge of fear, panic, or worry that can occur without warning. It can persist for several minutes and be incredibly intense. During an “anxiety attack,” you may experience physical symptoms such as heart racing, shallow breathing, sweating, shaking, or dizziness. You may also have mental symptoms such as racing thoughts or a fear of losing control. Despite experiencing intense anxiety symptoms, “anxiety attacks” are not given a clinical diagnosis (Ankrom, 2022).
Sometimes panic attacks and anxiety attacks are used in the same context. Both may feel similar, making it hard to differentiate between them. Something to keep in mind is that anxiety is typically related to something that’s perceived as stressful or threatening and builds up gradually, while panic attacks are oftentimes more abrupt and intense episodes of fear that are accompanied by more intense physical symptoms (Rauch, 2019).
Nonetheless, when an anxiety attack manifests, it can feel like you are stuck in a world of your own that you struggle to come back from. It may feel like the world is becoming blurry, like your eyes are covered by fog. You may also experience unexplainable feelings of dread or fear. This can be an incredibly frightening experience and can make it hard to focus on anything else. And the truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution against these “anxiety attacks”, but there are several things you could try in response to them.
How to deal with an anxiety attack
Anxiety attacks can cause shallow, rapid breathing, so it is important to focus on taking slow, deep breaths to help calm your body and mind. This will help to slow down your breathing and reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety. You can also try to relax your body by tensing and releasing muscle groups one at a time, starting with your feet and working your way up to your head. You might want to go somewhere quiet or close your eyes so you can truly focus on calming down. Try to remind yourself that it will pass and that you’re safe.
It can also be helpful to shift your attention - maybe to an object nearby. Try to consciously observe all its details, such as the shape, color, texture, and size of the object. Or you could try to focus your attention on your five senses, naming the things you see, smell, hear, feel, and taste. Shifting your focus can help reduce the feeling of fear spreading through your body.
When you feel anxious, your body is usually ready to move, entering the fight or flight response. In this mode, your brain will focus your attention on the potential threat and prepare your body to either fight it off or escape. Your sense of time changes, and your heart rate goes up, sending blood to your muscles in preparation for your survival mode. So, allow your body to move, use up the energy and stress hormones it has produced, and rebalance. Physical movement can relieve your body of physical stress and help you calm down (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020).
Identifying the cause of your anxiety and facing them
Ultimately, it’s also important to take some time to reflect on the situations or thoughts that might have triggered your anxiety. Once you understand what causes your anxiety, you can start to identify ways to cope with it and reduce the frequency of anxiety attacks. There might be different causes, such as your upbringing, past negative experiences, your current environment, work, or major life events (Lieberman, 2020). Once you have identified a cause, it’s important for you to open up about it. You might want to talk to your close ones about it or seek professional help. It might feel uncomfortable in the beginning, but talking about your problems has been found to be a healthy coping mechanism.
It’s also important to remember that every time you avoid confronting your fear, it only confirms your belief that it isn't safe or that you can't manage it. It might feel helpful in the short run, but long term it feeds your anxiety. Yet your brain will need some convincing until it starts to believe that certain things are not scary or a threat. Essentially, to change your beliefs of not being able to do the “frightening” things, you need to face them and repeatedly do them as many times as it takes until it starts to become comfortable. That's a possibility to slowly decrease your feelings of anxiety (ADAA, 2021).
Anxiety attacks can be incredibly challenging to deal with, but there are ways to manage them. You might want to try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, refocusing your attention, or moving your body in response to your fight or flight mode. Additionally, try to identify and face your causes of anxiety..
Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). (2021, February 24). Why Anxiety Should Not Be Feared. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/why-anxiety-should-not-be-feared
Ankrom, S. (2022, August 24). What Happens During an Anxiety Attack. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-an-anxiety-attack-2584253
Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, July 6). Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
Kupfer, D. J. (2015). Anxiety and DSM-5. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 17(3), 245–246. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.3/dkupfer
Lieberman, C. (2020, September 18). How to Manage Your Anxiety. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/09/how-to-manage-your-anxiety
Rauch, J. (2019, November 15). Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: Key Differences | Talkspace. Mental Health Conditions. https://www.talkspace.com/mental-health/conditions/articles/anxiety-attack-vs-panic-attack-one/
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